The determination of the health status of individual cetaceans as part of an evaluation of population health has dramatically changed over the years. While the sampling of blood has been the foundational approach to assess health it is widely recognized that additional technology such as ultrasound and other imaging techniques can add to the clarity of understanding of the health status of individuals.
In human care of dolphins, or your typical animal hospital, radiographs (x-rays) are also part of a health assessment. Just a few years ago the limits in applying this to animals in a field situation included the need for electricity to run the generator and a method for acquiring images that could be easily taken and stored electronically. The development of digital radiographs to replace the need to develop film in tanks like photographs was a great leap forward and brought us closer to taking the system in the field. With that challenge solved we still needed an electrical source for powering the unit that produces the x-rays and a sensitive plate that receives the exposure and sends the image back to a computer program that can be viewed almost immediately. Both of these needed to be safe and able to handle the presence of water.
Now there are battery operated generators and the next step in realizing the goal was the availability of a wireless plate that communicated directly with the computer eliminating the need for a cord between the plate and the computer. We began working with Vet Rocket, an imaging company founded by Andy Fu, that specializes in radiology equipment where the plate is extremely sensitive, giving great detail, as well as wireless and the generator is powered by a battery pack. We used the system first at Clearwater Marine Aquarium as part of the health assessments for dolphins to show it was quick and applicable. With that success we proposed using the system in the field. Last year was the first try and we imaged the chests of two large males to prove the system could acquire good images even with larger animals. The system worked beyond our hopes and we came back in 2015 to add more information and improve the steps needed to get the images quickly and safely. Our hope is to work in concert with the other technologies such as ultrasound and to help get even more information on chest disease and skeletal changes in this amazing population of animals in Sarasota Bay. We would like to thank the people who are supportive of this project and always making things better for the animals, including Craig Pelton, Andy Fu, Jeff Wood, and Ned Waters.
This article appeared on page 18 in the December 2015 issue of Nicks n Notches.