2011 International Training Perspective

I have been very lucky to participate once again in the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, but this time working on my senior thesis, which will allow me to get my degree when I go back to Argentina.

Yamila Rodriguez returning
Yamila Rodriguez returning from a hard day of purse seining.

I’ve always been attracted to how a simple algal cell could cause such a big change in the ecosystem. This is one of the reasons that I have focused my research on investigating how severe red tide blooms (caused by the toxic dinoflagellate Karenia brevis) affect the activity patterns and group size of the local dolphin community.

In order to study this, I used the data from regular  photo-identification surveys conducted for the SDRP during the 2000-2009 period in Sarasota Bay.

After the analysis I found that the activity patterns of Sarasota dolphins show changes during severe red tide events that mirror recent findings which focused on juvenile dolphins during a shorter time period.

More specifically, foraging activity decreased, which might be related to changes in fish abundance and community structure.

I also noticed an increase in social activity and group size during the red tide years, perhaps related to a shift in their diet which maybe requires different foraging strategies.

Finally, I observed that the dolphins’ interaction with boats became higher in those years with K. brevis blooms. This suggests that some animals may turn to anglers and boaters as a potential source of food or that they may bow or wake ride to save energy.

In conclusion, these results indicate that several red tide events have induced changes in the activity patterns of bottlenose dolphins over that time, showing that this species can change their habitual routine to adapt to the new conditions that K. brevis induces.

I’m very grateful for all the help I have received from my advisor Randall Wells and the SDRP’s dedicated staff. Without their support my thesis wouldn’t be possible.

Working with the SDRP has been a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from the best, and I’m certain that all the knowledge and skills that I have acquired are going to be very helpful in this magical career for which I’m just beginning.


Where are they now? 2011Graduate student update

My interest in marine species and the marine environment began when I started volunteering at The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) in 1991, where I was first exposed to the impact that disease can have on marine mammal species.

I returned to TMMC a decade later, as their first veterinary intern, after earning my veterinary degree at the University of California, Davis.

Dr. Deb Fauquier examining melon-headed whale
Dr. Deb Fauquier examining “Dante,” a melon-headed whale rescued by Mote Marine Laboratory in October 2011. Photo credit: Mote Marine Laboratory.

Following my completion of the internship at TMMC, I obtained a position as a staff scientist and deputy program manager of the Stranding Investigations Program at Mote Marine Laboratory, where I studied the health of marine species and their environment.

During this time, I served as the field veterinarian for the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, conducting health assessments on the local bottlenose dolphin population and conducting research into causes of mortality in this population.

I returned to California to pursue a PhD in Ocean Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My PhD dissertation research focused on investigating the effects of red tides (Karenia brevis) on sea birds in Florida.

As my doctoral research nears completion I am excited about the opportunity awaiting me in Washington D.C. as a Knauss Marine Policy Finalist. The National Sea Grant College Program, John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, was created in 1979, and provides a unique educational experience to students, exposing them to national policy decisions affecting ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources.

I will be spending a year in Washington D.C. learning how decisions are made to establish scientific priorities and how sound science can be implemented into policy on the national level.

The marine ecosystem is undergoing rapid changes, some natural and some man-made, including increases in harmful algal blooms, changes related to climate change, and the impacts of marine debris.

I feel there is an urgency to confront these issues and to formulate policies that will protect the marine environment in a timely manner.

Although I enjoy being a veterinarian and conducting research, I believe I can make a larger impact by participating in the policy arena. Therefore, the Fellowship will give me the skills I will need in the future to pursue a career where I can advocate for the best possible science to be utilized in protecting the marine environment.



Impacts of red tide toxins on seabirds

Estuaries are highly productive and ecologically rich areas that are important habitats for fish and bird species.

Over the past few decades, the frequency and duration of harmful algal blooms (HABs) have been increasing globally in coastal areas.

HABs, especially those caused by the red tide organism, Karenia brevis, occur frequently along Florida’s west coast, causing episodes of high mortality in fish, sea turtles, birds, bottlenose dolphins

Two white pelicans and a double-crested cormorant
Two white pelicans and a double-crested cormorant on the shores of Sarasota Bay.

and manatees.

Although red tide is known to cause episodes of mass mortality among marine animals, it is not known whether this disturbance results in significant declines in animal populations or changes in community structure.

This project determined the extent that the red tide toxin, brevetoxin, contributed to illness and death in stranded fish-eating birds from the Sarasota Bay area. In addition, how red tide influenced the abundance, habitat use, and behavior of fish-eating birds in the Sarasota Bay estuary was investigated.

Red tide bloom events caused by the dinoflagellate K. brevis occurred along the central west Florida coast from February 2005 through December 2005, and August 2006 through December 2006.

During these events, from February 4, 2005 through November 28, 2006, sick sea birds admitted for rehabilitation showed clinical signs including disorientation, inability to stand, incoordination, and seizures.

Flock of diving pelicans
A flock of diving pelicans take to the water.

Testing for brevetoxin by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay found toxin present in 69% (n=95) of rehabilitating sea birds.

Twelve of the 19 species of birds tested positive for brevetoxin exposure.

Double-crested cormorants were the most commonly affected species and presented with more severe neurological signs as compared to other species. Serial blood and fecal samples taken from several live sea birds during rehabilitation showed that brevetoxin was cleared within 5-10 from the animals’ bodies.

More than 34,000 bird observations from boat-based surveys were obtained during summer and winter seasons from 2006 through 2009 in Sarasota Bay, involving more than 20 different species.

The most abundant bird species were double-crested cormorants, laughing gulls, and brown pelicans. Periods of high red tide cell densities (>105 cell l-1) occurred during the summer 2006 and the winter 2007 seasons.

Overall bird densities were lower during red tide blooms than they were during non-red tide bloom conditions. In particular the lower density of birds was attributed to decreased abundance of double-crested cormorants in all habitats during red tide bloom conditions.

In contrast, brown pelicans and laughing gulls had no change or increased in abundance during red tide conditions. I

t is probable that cormorants are consuming different prey than pelicans and gulls and may be exposed to a higher dose of toxin leading to increased illness and death, and lower abundances during red tide events.

This project was supported by a Morris Animal Foundation Research Grant, Florida’s State Wildlife Grants Program, and an EPA Star Fellowship



SDRP Veternarian is Finalist for Fellowship

Deborah Fauquier, DVM, has been named as a finalist for a prestigious Marine Policy Fellowship offered by the National Sea Grant College Program.

Deb, is already a marine mammal veternarian, and she led the vet team during the 2010 dolphin health assessments in Sarasota Bay. Read more about her life as a marine mammal vet below.

Currently completing her PhD in Ocean Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Deb’s dissertation research investigated the effects of brevetoxin on sea birds in Sarasota Bay, Florida.

The Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship provides a unique educational experience to students by exposing them to national policy decisions affecting ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources.

Sponsored by NOAA, the program matches highly qualified graduate students with hosts in the legislative and the executive branches of government in the Washington, D.C. area. It also provides a one-year paid fellowship.


More about Deb Fauquier:

Why Being a Marine Mammal Veterinarian is Cool

As the 4-wheel truck drove down a steep  access road to a large sandy beach in Santa Cruz on a foggy August 2010 morning to rescue a sick California sea lion, the last thing I thought I would see was a group of 10-15 coastal bottlenose dolphins feeding within 10-20 feet from shore.

My immediate thought was please don’t strand, because I have dealt with live strandings of dolphins during my time working with SDRP in Florida. These are the thoughts that come into your head when you are a marine mammal veterinarian.

You can’t just marvel at the sight of a group of healthy dolphins close to shore. You worry about what diseases they might have, if they ingested some floating plastic debris that morning, or if they have just eaten some fish that might contain an algal toxin.

As a marine mammal veterinarian at the SDRP, not only am I involved in making sure our local bottlenose dolphins are healthy and safe during our dolphin health assessments, but I also work on research investigating causes of mortality in this population.

In general the local Sarasota dolphin population is pretty healthy compared to some other dolphin populations, but we still have mortality including:

  • exposure to brevetoxins, which are potent neurotoxins produced by marine algae,
  • ingestion of recreational fishing gear including lures and lines,
  • contact with, and subsequent migration of sting ray barbs or fish spines that can perforate vital organs,
  • diseases and infections.

These causes of mortality are not limited to bottlenose dolphins. They also affect sea turtles, sea birds, and manatees.

In fact my PhD research at the University of California, Santa Cruz is investigating how brevetoxins impact sea birds in Sarasota.

Our initial findings have confirmed that double-crested cormorants are most affected by brevetoxins intoxication and this is linked to how, where, and what they feed upon.

And algal toxins are not confined to Florida or Gulf Coast Waters. They have a worldwide distribution, and a different toxin, domoic acid, is also prominent on the California coast, which brings us back to that sick California sea lion.

The sea lion ended up not being intoxicated with an algal toxin, but was suffering from a bacterial infection that attacks the kidneys called leptospirosis.

Happily, as we drove the sea lion off the beach and back to the hospital for treatment, the dolphins just kept on feeding.


Red Tides Influence Juvenile DolphinBehavior

Social behavior, activity budgets and ranging behavior of juvenile bottlenose dolphins change during red tides.

They spend less time alone, and they associate in larger, less stable groups, that include a greater diversity of companions.

Harmful algae blooms, called red tides in Florida contain neurotoxins which impact prey fish abundance  and potentially dolphin health.

New research by the SDRP’s Dr. Katherine McHugh and other SDRP staff documents the impact of red tide on juvenile dolphin behavior.

While more research is needed to understand the relationship, the researchers thinkthat the dolphins are responding to changes in prey fish caused by red tides.

For instance, prey fish species declined 57 to more than 90% during red tide blooms in 2005 and 2006.

Researchers speculate that the changed behaviors resulted from a dietary change towards schooling fish that were minimally impacted by red tide, and thus became relatively more abundant.

The abstract for the research article is included below. A copy may be obtained from the author (kmchugh@mote.org) or the publisher.


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McHUGH, K. A., ALLEN, J. B., BARLEYCORN, A. A., & WELLS, R. S. 2011 Severe Karenia brevis red tides influence juvenile bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) behavior in Sarasota Bay, Florida MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE, 27(3): 622–643. DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2010.00428.x


Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are natural stressors in the coastal environment that may be increasing in frequency and severity. This study investigates whether severe red tide blooms, caused by Karenia brevis, affect the behavior of resident coastal bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida through changes to juvenile dolphin activity budgets, ranging patterns, and social associations. Behavioral observations were conducted on free-ranging juvenile dolphins during the summer months of 2005–2007, and behavior during red tide blooms was compared to periods of background K. brevis abundance. We also utilized dolphin group sighting data from 2004 to 2007 to obtain comparison information from before the most severe recent red tide of 2005 and incorporate social association information from adults in the study area. We found that coastal dolphins displayed a suite of behavioral changes associated with red tide blooms, including significantly altered activity budgets, increased sociality, and expanded ranging behavior. At present, we do not fully understand the mechanism behind these red tide-associated behavioral effects, but they are most likely linked to underlying changes in resource availability and distribution. These behavioral changes have implications for more widespread population impacts, including increased susceptibility to disease outbreaks, which may contribute to unusual mortality events during HABs.