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A record-setting dolphin study by the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium has received a national award just in time for its 40th anniversary this month. The joint program earned top honors in the 2010 North American Conservation Award category from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The award recognizes exceptional efforts each year to preserve regional habitat, restore species, and support biodiversity in the wild.

“The Chicago Zoological Society and Mote Marine Laboratory are taking the lead in North American conservation,” said Jim Maddy, AZA president and CEO. “Conservation is a high priority of the two institutions, as well as all AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, and this award provides well-deserved national recognition for this important endeavor.”

The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, which turns 40 this month, is a field program of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Dolphin Research & Conservation Institute (DRCI) and is the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population. Program scientists have studied the 160 bottlenose dolphins living year-round in the “natural laboratory” setting of Sarasota Bay for more than five generations, gathering unparalleled data that inform marine mammal management and conservationists. The program is a collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory and a number of other organizations from around the world.

“The heart and soul of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program are the people who work with the DRCI—the dedicated staff and students, long-term partners, and collaborators from around the world who produce these one-of-a-kind scientific studies, datasets, training opportunities, and conservation outcomes,” said Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society.

Based at Mote since 1970, the program is led by Dr. Randall Wells, senior conservation scientist for CZS. Wells and his staff recognize each of Sarasota Bay’s dolphins by taking photos of their dorsal fins, which have unique nicks and notches that function like fingerprints. Program scientists monitor individual dolphins through monthly photo ID surveys, health assessment, behavioral observations, and other techniques.

“We study these dolphins through their lives, from the day they are born until after they die,” said Wells. “We have a unique understanding of how they are affected by changes in their environment, both natural and manmade."

Program scientists currently focus on characterizing and mitigating human impacts on dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, such as ingestion or entanglement with fishing gear, vessel strikes, environmental contaminants, and coastal development.

“Randy Wells has studied the dolphins of Sarasota Bay since he was a volunteer at Mote during his high school years. His dedication is a key part of the program’s legacy, and he is now one of the world’s most respected dolphin biologists,” said Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, president of Mote. “Today, our colleagues from around the globe come to learn the techniques his team has pioneered.”

The program is recognized internationally for its unique relevance to emerging environmental issues such as providing baseline information for the long-term effects of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The program is also internationally renowned for its many scientific publications based on unparalleled long-term data from continuous studies over many years.

Building on this knowledge, the program has been a global training center for dolphin scientists, research fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students. Its education efforts include outreach for mitigation of human interactions, exhibit displays at Brookfield Zoo and Mote Aquarium, and field experiences for exceptional high school students.