As apex predators, dolphins serve as a sentinel species for monitoring ocean and human health. The Harbor Branch HERA Project is a multi-disciplinary research program designed to assess environmental and anthropogenic stressors affecting the health and long-term viability of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), which also yields information about the health of the surrounding ecosystem.
The FAU Harbor Branch HERA Project started in 2003 under NOAA Fisheries Service Permit No. 998-1678 issued to former Harbor Branch Research Professor Greg Bossart, Ph.D., and is a collaborative effort between FAU Harbor Branch, Georgia Aquarium and the NOAA National Ocean Service Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research.
Physical examinations were conducted on temporarily restrained dolphins to evaluate general condition and to collect a suite of non-lethal biological samples (e.g., blood, teeth, skin/blubber biopsy, urine, feces, gastric fluid, blowhole cells) for analyses. The field work occurred over a seven- to 10-day period annually 2003-2007 and 2010-2013. The research sites were Florida’s Indian River Lagoon (IRL; seven years) and South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor (two years). The goals of the HERA Project are to identify health threats to dolphins, and to identify links to possible environmental stressors. In the future, such data may help shape environmental policies with more effective conservation management strategies and enforcement capabilities.
FAU Harbor Branch currently leads the analysis and integration of environmental and photo ID data with HERA results in order to gain a better understanding of the health of the IRL. The goals of the HERA Project are to identify health threats to dolphins, and to identify links to possible environmental stressors. Among the outcomes of this work are more than 50 peer-reviewed publications, and some of the most recent are listed below. In the future, HERA data may help shape environmental policies with more effective conservation management strategies and enforcement capabilities.