What the health of dolphins reveal about human health


An animal that’s a part of paradise is facing growing challenges to their health.

Michael Williams looks at how dolphins are telling us a story about the threats and challenges we too must face

The Indian River Lagoon beckons sailors, fishermen, and the Bottlenose Dolphins we glimpsed with Fau Harbor branch scientists.

“We take a picture of their fin that can act like a fingerprint,” said biologist Elizabeth Titcomb. She got no pictures this day but dolphin photo surveys are a key research tool

“They really do give us a picture of the health of the overall lagoon,” Titcomb said.

That picture is not pretty in a lagoon stretching from the Jupiter Inlet to Merritt Island. Adam Schafer is an epidemiologist studying the links between dolphin and human health.

“We look at mercury concentrations. We are seeing concentrations in our dolphins among the highest that have been recorded in dolphins species worldwide,” Schafer said.

“They are swimming in the same water we are swimming in and they are eating the same fish we are eating,” Titcomb said. 

Schafer’s team found elevated mercury levels among recreational fishermen they tested.

“So we actually started another study partnering with local physicians where we have been sampling pregnant women,” Schafer said.

Higher mercury levels have tended to be in the northern lagoon. Closer to home other stressors are growing.

“The harmful algal blooms are obviously a very significant issue that’s been going on,” Schafer said.

Surveys of lagoon dolphins also reveal skin diseases, including a fungal disease called lacaziosis.

“It is a disease that only affects humans and dolphins,” Schafer said.

Human cases of the disease have only been seen in central and south america. So what’s going on here? 

“Why are we seeing a higher incidence of these lesions in the southern lagoon?” Schafer said.

It’s a growing toll of pollution from industry and farms and what we flush down our drains and out of our yards.

“We are actually seeing antibiotic resistant bacteria in these dolphins,” Titcomb said.

“We need to quit using places like the indian river lagoon as a dumping ground, intentionally or unintentionally,” Schafer said.

“Exactly, I mean I’m sure most of the time it is unintentional but there are proper ways to dispose of medication. There are different pesticides that can be used that are more environmentally friendly,” Titcomb said.

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