Special Section: Marine Sentinel Species


, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 246-254

First online:

Bottlenose Dolphins as Marine Ecosystem Sentinels: Developing a Health Monitoring System

  • Randall S. WellsAffiliated withSarasota Dolphin Research Program, Chicago Zoological Society Email author 
  • , Howard L. RhinehartAffiliated withMote Marine Laboratory
  • , Larry J. HansenAffiliated withUS Fish and Wildlife Service
  • , Jay C. SweeneyAffiliated withDolphin Quest
  • , Forrest I. TownsendAffiliated withBayside Hospital for Animals
  • , Rae StoneAffiliated withDolphin Quest
  • , David R. CasperAffiliated withLong Marine Laboratory, University of California
  • , Michael D. ScottAffiliated withInter-American Tropical Tuna Commission
  • , Aleta A. HohnAffiliated withNational Marine Fisheries Service
    • , Teri K. RowlesAffiliated withNational Marine Fisheries Services

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Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), as long-lived, long-term residents of bays, sounds, and estuaries, can serve as important sentinels of the health of coastal marine ecosystems. As top-level predators on a wide variety of fishes and squids, they concentrate contaminants through bioaccumulation and integrate broadly across the ecosystem in terms of exposure to environmental impacts. A series of recent large-scale bottlenose dolphin mortality events prompted an effort to develop a proactive approach to evaluating risks by monitoring living dolphin populations rather than waiting for large numbers of carcasses to wash up on the beach. A team of marine mammal veterinarians and biologists worked together to develop an objective, quantitative, replicable means of scoring the health of dolphins, based on comparison of 19 clinically diagnostic blood parameters to normal baseline values. Though the scoring system appears to roughly reflect dolphin health, its general applicability is hampered by interlaboratory variability, a lack of independence between some of the variables, and the possible effects of weighting variables. High score variance seems to indicate that the approach may lack the sensitivity to identify trends over time at the population level. Potential solutions to this problem include adding or replacing health parameters, incorporating only the most sensitive measures, and supplementing these with additional measures of health, body condition, contaminant loads, or biomarkers of contaminants or their effects that can also be replicated from site to site. Other quantitative approaches are also being explored.


bottlenose dolphin ecosystem health sentinel species risk assessment