Wild at Heart: The Wild Dolphin Project

Floridians are no strangers to dolphins, but few are as familiar with these intelligent marine mammals as Dr. Denise Herzing. As founder and research director of the Jupiter-based Wild Dolphin Project, Herzing is on a quest to better understand the inner worlds of these remarkable creatures.

Dr. Denise Herzing swims behind a group of dolphins with an underwater video camera and a high-frequency recording device. Photo courtesy of the Wild Dolphin Project.

   Established in 1985, the Wild Dolphin Project is conducting field research on roughly 100 Atlantic spotted dolphins living in the Bahamas. “The initial mission was to just plant ourselves in a place where we could observe a wild dolphin society underwater, where you see how they behave and how they communicate,” Herzing says.

   Herzing and her colleagues spend 90-100 days a year on board a 60-foot catamaran, noninvasively observing the dolphins in their natural habitat. “The idea was to see what they would show us,” she says. “Would they show us their individuality, their society, their communication?” These spotted dolphins, which Herzing describes as a very gregarious species, are doing just that.

   The Wild Dolphin Project also is attempting to communicate with the animals by mimicking and creating whistles using an underwater computer. “We’re trying to expose them to some of the signals and see how they might try to bridge the gap with us,” Herzing says.

   These efforts have resulted in hefty discoveries in dolphin communication, intelligence, and sociality. Above all, Herzing hopes her efforts and findings will pave the way for future generations of wildlife researchers. 

   Want to know more about the Atlantic spotted dolphin? Below, Herzing outlines five key facts.

  1. The average lifespan is between 20 and 25 years. “We know they can live into their mid-50s,” Herzing says. “The average age is around 20 or 25. Like us, they don’t all make it to old age, but they certainly can.”
  2. Spotted dolphins acquire their spots with age. “They get spots with age [so that] gives us a window into their developmental progress so we can actually identify their ages. It helps us understand what juveniles do differently than adults.”
  3. Females form bonds with other females on the same reproductive schedule. “Females tend to associate with other females that are of the same reproductive status. We might have females that have never hung out together and then they both get pregnant or have calves and all of a sudden they’re best buddies.”
  4. Males form friendships early in life and strongly maintain those friendships. “Males basically form little teenage gangs. They form little coalitions and alliances and they’re lifelong buddies.”
  5. Dolphins are very idiosyncratic. “They’re very individual, they have personalities, which makes for the complexity of their lives. A dolphin is not a dolphin; they can be bold or shy or have bad temperaments, good temperaments, all of the above.”
Mugsy, a full adult female, and Meridian, one of her daughters, display the degree of spot changes with age. Photo by Ruth Petzold.


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