Unlike the industry serving health-conscious humans, there are no books, infomercials or 12-week programs to help dolphins optimize their diets.
But there is an app for that, thanks to new research by animal welfare specialists at Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society.
Last year, the zoo launched a mobile app called ZooMorphTrak that allows trainers and veterinarians to estimate the weight of bottlenose dolphins and create a body profile based on factors such as age, sex, body length and girth, in addition to weight.
The app compares body measurements for a given dolphin to a database of wild bottlenose dolphins living near Sarasota Bay, Florida.
“You can put your animal’s data into the app, [and] from that, we can create an estimate of what we think a good weight interval for that dolphin might be,” said Lisa Lauderdale, a postdoctoral fellow in CZS’ Animal Welfare Research department and one of the app’s creators.
Using that information, animal care staff at zoos and aquariums can then adjust dolphins’ diets, which are comprised of various fish species, to help them attain a healthy weight.
Zoo animal nutritionists already work to develop proper diets for dolphins and other species based on their feeding method, digestive system, evolutionary history and seasonal factors, along with preferences for individual animals.
But determining a dolphin’s weight can be tricky, Lauderdale said, especially for younger dolphins that in some cases cannot be trained to slide onto a special scale laid next to the pool. Using a scale is also more difficult for dolphins that are pregnant.
With ZooMorphTrak, staff simply enter a dolphin’s length and girth – which are relatively easy to collect using a flexible tape measure – plus their age and sex. The app then provides an estimate of the dolphin’s weight, in addition to an ideal weight range for the animal.
In addition to helping staff craft custom diets, knowing more about dolphins’ size and body conditions can be used to monitor the overall health of a population and aid conservation efforts, according to a paper published by Lauderdale and her colleagues in the December edition of the journal Marine Mammal Science.
Lauderdale said ZooMorphTrak, which is available for free via Apple’s App Store, has been downloaded 105 times.
The new app is the latest technology developed at the zoo with the goal of improving care for dolphins and other marine life.
About a year ago, CZS, which manages Brookfield Zoo, began a $740,000 study that is using Fitbit-like sensors to collect data from nearly 300 dolphins and 20 beluga whales in seven countries.
The study, which uses devices that are attached to the dolphins and whales with suction cups, aims to revolutionize human understanding of the animals’ behavior, providing data on their speed and acceleration, distance traveled, where they spend time in the pool and other information.