A scientist who swims around eavesdropping on dolphin communications has just concluded extensive research at a local facility in the Bahamas. Award-winning dolphin expert, Dr. Kathleen Dudzinksi spent a week studying a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at Dolphin Encounters on Blue Lagoon Island. The American marine scientist, known for her pioneering work and research in dolphin communication was at the facility along with a team of experts, studying dolphin communication and behavior. It’s just one of several trips that she makes to the Bahamas each year. The marine scientist has spent the past 14 years studying dolphin-to-dolphin communication in the wild and under human care.
“The purpose of my investigation here today is to discover new ways that these fascinating marine mammals communicate with each other. They do so in so many unique ways and each day we discover something different,” she said. “I’ve been finding more similarities between dolphins in the wild and dolphins under human care. I’ve also been researching how dolphins might use bubbles as a visual system and how they eavesdrop on echolocation.”
While scientists have been observing dolphins under human care for more than two decades, underwater research on dolphins in the wild is still relatively new. Dr. Dudzinski’s research gives the public insight into the ways that dolphins communicate with each other. Her work has taken her to remote parts of the world over the years from Honduras to Japan.
Dr. Dudzinski overcame a major hurdle when she designed and built her first mobile video acoustic device (MVA) to record dolphin behavior and communication. Because sound moves faster underwater, dolphin sounds appear as if they are coming from all directions at once, making them difficult to track. So, Dr. Dudzinski developed a pair of underwater microphones, called hydrophones, which allow her to track the sounds better. She later added an echolocation click detector to the mobile recording system to capture and document information on dolphin echolocation signals. She was awarded a Fairfield Memorial Award for her unique design.
“What I did was I built a system for simultaneously recording the behaviors and vocalizations of dolphins underwater. The microphones are set far apart, so the delay produced by that distance allows me to localize the sounds. Later, on I study my film and tapes and identify which animal is vocalizing and which animal is reacting to the vocalizations,” she said.
The marine scientist also serves as the Director of the Dolphin Communication Project at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT. She said the technology and methods she uses helps her to observe how dolphins communicate with each other.
Dr. Dudzinski said she chose to conduct her studies at Dolphin Encounters on Blue Lagoon Island because the facility provides the “perfect atmosphere” to carry out her investigations.
“I’ve been coming to Dolphin Encounters for years and I have an incredibly great rapport with everyone here. The trainers at Dolphin Encounters are incredibly helpful and professional – hands down the best in the profession. I find that I work well with a lot of them, and I never feel as if I’m imposing,” she said.
“Sometimes you go to some places that aren’t that accommodating, and they make you feel as if you’re a walking imposition. I don’t get that here.” she said. “The dolphins here at the Dolphin Encounters are also very engaging and responsive. A lot of them recognize me and I think they have an idea what I’m doing because I’ve been here so many times. But, honestly, I couldn’t have found a better place to assist me with this project.”
Dr. Dudzinski also spent the week playing host to a group of students from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. During that time, she introduced many of them to world of marine biology and gave them insight into her research.
“During my speech I explained to the kids how the MVA works. I introduced the four field sights and showed them data sheets. We also talked about internships and discussed what type of careers they can have. It’s not enough to say ÔI want to be a marine biologist.’ That is too general. They really have to narrow it down, and that’s what I helped them do,” she said.
On the first day, Dr. Dudzinski conducted two observation sessions. She spent the morning session in the pool with five of the facility’s dolphins: Nina, Lagoona, Dot, Cacique and Missy. Later in the afternoon, she studied with the male dolphins: Jake, Fatman and McGyver.
“The calves were all over the place and were very inquisitive during the morning session, but I was completely ignored for the rest of the afternoon. I watched a few times as one or two of the male dolphins would echolocate on me from 24 feet away. I saw their back and dorsal fin at the surface, but as I slowly approached they would move off. But luckily, I was still able to collect data and had a pretty productive day,” she said.
During her research at Dolphin Encounters, Dr. Dudzinski gave a special presentation to the Boston Museum of Science via a videocast, where she fielded questions about her research and studies and updated conference-goers on her progress to date.
Dr. Dudzinski joined Mystic Aquarium & Institute for exploration as a Scientist-in-Residence in 2003. She attended the University of Connecticut, graduated with honors with a B.S in Biological Sciences. She later earned her doctorate in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences with an emphasis on Dolphin Communication and Behavior. Dr. Dudzinski was awarded a National Science Foundation three year pre-doctoral fellowship. During her graduate program, Dr. Dudzinski studied communication between Atlantic spotted dolphins in Bahamian waters. Her focus was on contact behavior and signal exchange among dolphins. Dr. Dudzinski is expected to return to the Bahamas in January 2008.