Dolphin Biopsy Study Hits the Press

I suspect an editor at the Miami Herald didn’t get the picture from Cammy Clark’s report on Jennifer Lewis’s research on bottlenose dolphins, for it appears with the headline, “Dolphin researcher’s method decried as `cruel'”. Well, yeah, if you look hard enough for people ignorant enough, you can get that sort of reaction. It doesn’t seem like something a responsible journalist would do to saddle a solid article with an irresponsible yellow headline like that, but it does sound like something a partisan at the paper might do to a perfectly reasonable news story.

Lewis is using a procedure for biopsy acquisition developed by Richard H. Lambertsen in the 1980s. (The paper is one of the earliest that I assisted in the production of.)

Richard H. Lambertsen. 1987. A Biopsy System for Large Whales and Its Use for Cytogenetics. Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 68, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 443-445.

The problem with Lewis’s procedure is that she is apparently collecting biopsy specimens from dolphins in view of people with misplaced sensitivities.

But the sight of someone shooting icons of cute nature is too frightening for many in the Keys, triggering debate.

”This is cruel,” said Sheri Sullenger, founder of the Florida Keys Wild Dolphin Alliance. “They could become infected and even die. And the dolphins appear like they are being hunted, and are starting to change their behavior.”

Clark’s report addresses Sullenger’s assertion.

Biopsies have the potential to harm or kill, said Keith Mullen, marine mammal program manager at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center in St. Petersburg and the person overseeing Lewis’ work under the federal permit.

”But done safely with training, the risk is very minimal,” Mullen said.

He said he knows of only one documented case in which a dolphin died after a biopsy sample was taken by a crossbow: in 2000, in the Mediterranean Sea.

”It’s amazing how quickly they heal,” Mase said. “They are adapted to recovering from shark bites.”

They could become infected, sure, but the risk, as shown by decades of practice, is pretty darn low.

”We have happy, healthy dolphins,” said Donna Fielder, who runs Captain Seaweed Charters. “If we were having sick or injured dolphins, and they were showing up dead and we didn’t understand what was going on, then absolutely come in and do the research to assist in solving the problem.”

I’m sorry, Ms. Fielder, but you have no clue about the health status of the dolphins in the area. You may see dolphins doing what you perceive as cavorting, but on the one hand that doesn’t even guarantee that those dolphins have the health status that you assign, and on the other it does not speak to a population’s health status. Purposely remaining ignorant until after a mass stranding is, well, idiocy.

Again, Clark’s report has the relevant rejoinder within it.

”People in the Keys are emotional about the dolphins and sometimes it’s hard for them to understand the science,” said Blair Mase, Southeast Stranding Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries. “They don’t want any harm to come to them, and neither do we. But the amount of information we gain is so valuable to help us protect them better.”

So, why would the editorial staff undo the careful research of Clark with the inflammatory and pandering-to-the-ignorant headline they chose? It’s a mystery.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.