SARASOTA -- A prominent researcher who has studied dolphins locally for 40 years is applying his expertise to help determine if there are long-term adverse effects from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Randall Wells has studied bottlenose dolphins since 1970, when he was a teenage intern at Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory.
He and a team of colleagues will be offering their knowledge and decades of accumulated data to help determine whether oil spewed into the Gulf during the spill poses long-term dangers to exposed dolphins.
“The important questions related to the oil spill are whether ranges of dolphins have shifted,” said Wells, 57, of Siesta Key, director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, a partnership between the Chicago Zoological Society and Mote.
The animals’ ranges are important because they determine whether they were exposed to oil, he added.
“Our data from dolphins in Sarasota are being used as a reference population by scientists studying those who were exposed to the oil,” he said.
Ten days a month, Wells’ teams surveys the dolphin population along the coast from Terra Ceia to Venice, an area of southwest Florida untouched by oil during the Gulf disaster.
About 160 dolphins use that range on a regular basis, including one 61-years-old -- Nicklo, whose fin sports a little nick, Wells said.
Researchers identify individual dolphins by the unique pattern of nicks and notches on their dorsal fins, which have been photographed and filed for reference, he said.
Patterns on the fin identify a dolphin in the same way a fingerprint identifies a human.
Over the decades, Wells has studied five generations of dolphins, including 3,500 individuals along the west coast.
“It becomes a hometown situation not just for people but animals, too,” Wells said.
His work in connection with the oil spill entails studying distribution and abundance of dolphins, and taking tiny samples of skin and blubber to analyze for environmental contaminants, genetics and diet, said Hayley Rutger, public relations coordinator at Mote Marine Laboratory.
His team will provide baseline information that can be compared with that of populations exposed to oil as scientists monitor for effects here and in the Florida Panhandle, in coordination with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Wells said.
In the fall, scientists hope to expand their study of dolphins that range over the Gulf’s continental shelf, Rutger said.
“We have a team working in the northern Gulf, also doing work off Destin relative to the oil,” Wells said. “Same thing, we’re helping the University of Central Florida group to collect samples to look for presence of contaminants.”
“What’s happened in the Gulf of Mexico is unprecedented,” Wells said. “With dolphins, there’s very little baseline information; it makes it difficult to predict what will happen.”
Locally, last year was a banner year, with 17 dolphin calves born, all still alive, Wells said.
But whether those elsewhere in the Gulf will fare as well is an unanswered question.
“In the northern Gulf, even before Deepwater Horizon, there was an unusual mortality event that has been occurring since February 2010 -- unusually high numbers washing up dead on beaches,” Wells said.
“It will be very complicated to determine cause of death,” he said, explaining that oil’s effect in the natural environment poses complex difficulties for researchers seeking answers.
“It will take long-term study, ecosystem study, not just dolphins in isolation, but integrated studies for the long-term to fully understand what happened and how resilient they are,” he said.
“I hope people don’t just forget about it, we’re just at the beginning stages of learning about what happens, what the potential is.”
The dolphin study program last year took to top honors in the 2010 North American Conservation Award category from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, according to Sondra Katzen, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Zoological Society.
It won an award for exceptional efforts to preserve regional habitat, restore species and support biodiversity in the wild, she said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.