This week SeaWorld announced the surprise pregnancy of Ringer, a 16-year-old Commerson’s dolphin at SeaWorld’s Aquatica waterpark in Orlando. This exciting news provides both an opportunity to learn more about this amazing animal and an opportunity to watch a Commerson’s dolphin calf grow up at Aquatica. Aquatica’s Commerson’s dolphins are the only Commerson’s dolphins in human care in the United States. Researchers, animal trainers, animal care, and veterinarians have an opportunity to learn more about this animal’s biology by working with them in human care. The birth is also a win for the species, as there is a lot we don’t know about these animals and the observations and data collected from the Aquatica pod could be valuable information that can help us to save thier wild counterparts and increase conservation measures in their habitats.
Commerson’s dolphins are sometimes referred to as the ‘skunk dolphin’ or ‘panda dolphin’ because of their coloration patterns. They prefer coastal waters less than 200 meters deep. There are two subspecies of Commerson’s dolphins. The first subspecies are in the coastal waters of the Southwest Atlantic Ocean in the Strait of Magellan, near the tip of Argentina and Chile. These animals are protected by Argentinian and Chilean laws. The second subspecies is found over 8,000 kilometers away in coastal waters in the southern part of the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, there is insufficient data for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUNC) to list this species on any of their lists. Simply put, researchers don’t know their population size, but are aware of anthropogenic challenges that they face like by-catch, direct catch to obtain meat or oil, pollution, and tourism that could threaten these species and drive them to extinction.
The surprise pregnancy of Ringer has also re-opened the controversial discussion on the effectiveness on cetacean birth control measures and caused outrage from animal activist groups such as PETA who urge families to boycott SeaWorld. Then again, activists will look for any reason to boycott SeaWorld or any other aquarium or zoo for that matter. The use of birth control in cetaceans as discussed in a previous Awesome Ocean article – see AWESOME RESEARCH: Captive Breeding Program Management Strategies in Cetaceans and Pinnipeds. Some have even confused the Orca breeding ban issue as one that extends to all cetaceans, and it does not. It is specific just to Orcas. Aquariums and zoological facilities are not banned from allowing other dolphin species to breed. Additionally, many activists have contradictory views. Even notorious Naomi Rose, who is adamantly opposed to cetaceans in human care, agrees that facilities should not use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy for long periods of time because they are thought to be harmful to the animal’s health – see SeaWorld dolphin’s surprise pregnancy shows animal birth-control limits. Ringer’s surprise pregnancy shows animal birth-control limits . It will be interesting to watch how this story develops and activist need to learn that they cannot have their cake an eat it too. We believe that breeding bans go against an animal’s biology and the use of contraceptives are controversial due their efficacy and require further research to assess the the long-term effects of habitual use.