Why so Stressed?

weddell pup

Why study marine mammal stress?

Marine mammals (ie. dolphins, seals, sea lions, whales, and sea otters) are some of the most majestic and beloved creatures in the ocean. We love to see these animals in the wild, but these creatures also exist in captivity. Before we jump into describing our research project, lets talk about the benefits ,and downfalls, of keeping a marine mammal in captivity.

Benefits of Marine Mammals in Captivity:

  1. Many marine mammals that are rescued and rehabilitated may be too injured to sick to release to the wild (they would be killed brutally by predators within days of release), therefore forcing the decision between euthanasia or captivity.
  2. Captivity is sometimes the only opportunity for someone to see a marine mammal in person, which inspires conservation and protection of our oceans.
  3. Captive marine mammals allow for research that is not possible on wild animals, such as physiology research that can help up better understand how to treat rescued animals and conserve wild marine mammal populations.

Downfalls of Marine Mammals in Captivity:

  1. Some place do not treat their animals properly, despite strict laws and money to learn how to properly care for marine mammals.
  2. Some places do not humanely collect their animals, such as taking babies from the wild (although this is now extremely rare due to strict laws and morals).

So what do we want to do?

We understand both sides of the story, and we want to help create a world where we can have happy, healthy marine mammals in captivity as tool for research, outreach, and education. To do so, we want to compare the physiology of wild and captive marine mammals to help zoos and aquariums create the optimum habitats for their marine mammals! This research will also be useful for rehabilitation centers so they promote quick recovery in the most stress-free environments possible.

What do we want to study?

What part of a marine mammal’s environment is causing it the most physiological stress?

Some possible stressors a marine mammal encounters in captivity are incorrect diet, high or low temperatures, short distance/ sound barrier from humans, low stimulation (such as toys), small spaces (to move around and swim), and injury /illness.

How are we studying it?

To answer our question, we turned to looking at the physiology of these animals on a cellular level. We want to figure out what the little proteins that work inside the cell are doing in response to the seal’s environment. To do so we are using a novel technique called proteomics.

With proteomics, we are collecting a tiny *top secret* part of the seal to determine what proteins are present in the seal and in what abundance. These proteins are like a puzzle. They give us clues into what mechanisms the seal is using to cope with various stress from their environment.

What makes this research project awesome is that our *top secret* part of the seal is so tiny the seal will barely notice that we took it from them. This is a big step in research, because in the past proteomics could be uncomfortable for the animal, like taking a small piece of skin or blubber (still nothing crazy for the amount of information we will gain from the research to help them)!

What are we finding?

We are still in the process of collecting, but we are so excited about the potential impact this research could have on the health and happiness of our captive marine mammals.

Any suggestions? Comment below!

Follow our blog (bottom of page) and Instagram (@beforthesea) for updates on what we are finding and how we are contributing to ocean conservation!

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