Dolphin Watch: Life is tough on newborn bottlenose dolphin babies

Bottlenose dolphin Bet gently nudged the corpse of her newborn son, vainly encouraging his indifferent body to swim. We watched from a distance to avoid troubling her further. This picture was taken with a long lens.

Do you like your sand-and-sea Florida lifestyle? Bottlenose dolphins are a spectacular part of it. They keep our tourist economy going as well.

Critically, the presence of a healthy dolphin population also maintains the ecological balance of our marine environment. Dolphins are important to anyone who loves this life.

A bottlenose dolphin is expensive to replace if we lose one because the species reproduces slowly. Mother dolphins invest several years into each of their surviving offspring. Anything that is expensive to replace is precious.

The dolphin baby season has started. Capt. John Heidemann and I, who monitor local dolphins under federal permit, make a list each year of the females that are likely to have babies.

Based on the age of their previous calves and related considerations, 28 local females could be mothers this summer. It is, however, unlikely that all 28 will be. It is more likely that eight to 13 of them will give birth, at least according to the information gleaned from the 148 bottlenose babies born in the study area in the last 15 years.

But this year could be diabolically different because last year. Red tide devastated local fish along with our tourist economy. How many pregnant dolphins managed to find enough food to sustain themselves and their developing fetus this past year?

So far this summer, three babies have been born. Life has been tough.

The earliest arrival was born mid-May to a local lady we call Split (named for the slit atop her dorsal fin). Around the time she gave birth, something bit her. The crescent-shaped mark it left behind implicates a shark bite. Now half-healed, the bite wasn’t bad or we would have never seen Split again.

More recently, something grabbed Split’s baby by the head and punctured the skin in front of its left eye. Protective balls of blubber oozed out of the puncture site, as if a pale yellow golf ball had been stuck to the baby’s temple. Dolphin blubber is a biological first-aid kit that seals off bleeding. Other than its bulges of blubber, the baby swims normally. We certainly wish it well.

Early in June, another local lady we call Bet gave birth to a little son. It is too late to wish him well. On June 3, we were alerted by a concerned citizen, Barry Taylor of Redington Shores, that one of a quartet of dolphins swimming past his coastal home appeared to be pushing something big with its head. Alarmed by the same view from a bridge, two landscapers contacted Capt. Heidemann about it. We went out to investigate.

Around 10:30 a.m., we found the little quartet that Taylor and the landscapers had reported. The dolphin pushing something with her head was Bet. The something she was pushing was the corpse of her newborn son.

We have known Bet since her own birth in 2004 (named because she was a “good bet”). We watched her grow up, fight for social status, affectionately raise two previous calves, and mourn for a year after her first calf died. Her current calf Bugatti and local bull DD2 accompanied her this anxious day.

We watched from a distance to avoid troubling her further.

Bet nudged the corpse of her dead newborn gently forward, vainly encouraging its indifferent body to swim. Some of her pushes rolled it like a barrel, during which its tiny tongue, dorsal fin, pectoral fins, or flukes flopped. Flopping suggested that the death was recent enough that rigor mortis had not yet set in.

Bet’s 3-year-old son Bugatti, whose replacement by the newborn would have forced him to live independently of his mother, mostly followed her closely as she prodded the corpse forward. But at one point, he helped her carry it when they cooperatively propped the corpse up with their heads at the same time.

Both Bet and the body of her dead newborn had a small patch of jagged toothrakes that suggested a shark. But no other signs bore that out.

Cause of death remains undetermined. Local stranding authorities will only collect and necropsy the corpse to determine cause of death if the mother abandons it. No one knows if or when Bet abandoned her baby’s body because they have not been seen since.

Just days later, a bottlenose baby was born to mom Cutlass (named after the American 4-4-2 muscle car). Just hours old, this newborn was tiny, shiny, and still wrinkly. It was surrounded by its mother and three other females, the latter members of the same family (X, named simply as a letter of the alphabet; her grown daughter Trix, short for Triple X; and teen daughter Xenios, Greek for hospitable).

The newborn’s tailstock had embarked on its lifetime of operation but it whirred wildly and mostly out of control, pitching the tiny dolphin forward in his pen of attentive females. But glassy green waters also revealed that, now and again, one of the females goosed it gently with a little nudge, using the same encouraging gesture that Bet had used in vain.

Dolphins are important to our fabulous Florida lifestyles, tourist trade, fishing, and the very ecological balance of our marine environment. They are even more important to each other.

Ann Weaver, Ph.D., studies wild dolphins under federal permit 20346, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at annstats54@gmail.com or visit her website www.goodnaturedstatistics.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.