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Inside the dolphin pit

Published February 26, 2010

From Kerry Martens, Marine Mammal Specialist Earlier this week we announced the pregnancy of Jade, one of our Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. This is a very exciting but busy time for the marine mammal staff. About a month before the expected due date, our staff and a group of trained volunteers begin 24/7 monitoring of the pregnant female for signs of labor. Around-the-clock observations of Jade began February 12 and will continue for an additional month after the calf is born. Observations are conducted from “the pit,” located in the middle of our pools. After a short climb down a ladder, the area, with room for only two chairs, has windows looking into all three pools.  Being comfortable with small spaces is a must!  Observers use hand-held palm pilots in order to record target behaviors as they see them. We look for a variety of things with Jade. We record which of the other animals she spends time with, signs of belly movement and, most importantly, arches and crunches actions. Arches and crunches are pronounced, deliberate stretches that increase in frequency the closer we get to birth. At the beginning of the year, we recruited and trained more than 50 volunteers to assist with the constant monitoring.  This group is made up of volunteers and staff members from other areas of the Aquarium. Volunteers sign up for three-hour shifts each week, with some dedicated observers picking up two or more shifts weekly! They are all excited to be part of this unique experience and we are so lucky to have the help. Trainers are also here around the clock. When 24/7 observations begin, we add an evening shift of 3 p.m. - 11:30 p.m. and an overnight shift  of 11:30 p.m. - 8 a.m. We are there to oversee the volunteer observers, watch Jade if no volunteers are present, and enter in all the data collected by volunteers during the day. If Jade should go into labor during our shift, our most important job is to watch and monitor the mother and the calf. We rarely intervene during labor. We record information such as first time flukes are seen (dolphins are born tail, not head first), when the calf takes its first breath and the first time it nurses.   From a trainer's perspective, observations are a great way to get an idea of the animal’s behavior when we’re not working with them.  We have seen some pretty cool things including Jade “nursing” from Shiloh. Dolphins learn to be good mothers by watching and mimicking others around them. Could Shiloh, one of our most experienced moms, be teaching Jade what to do once the baby comes? Maybe! Here is a quick look at Jade from the pit!
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