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Pacific White-sided Dolphins

Pacific white-sided dolphins can leap effortlessly to towering heights of 15 to 20 feet, turn somersaults in the air, or belly flop with a dramatic splash. These acrobatic behaviors are what draw 2 million visitors to the Abbott Oceanarium every year.

Gregarious and athletic, Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) are distinguished by their black backs, gray sides and white bellies. A suspender-like stripe runs down each side. Nicknamed “lags” after their unwieldy scientific name, these speedy swimmers rely on the up-and-down movement of their flukes, or flattened lobes of the tail, to propel them forward. Dolphins will eagerly ride the waves of a ship’s bow, and they have clocked speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

Like belugas, dolphins use echolocation to navigate and to find food in murky waters. They send out high-frequency clicks that rebound off objects. The dolphin’s forehead and lower jaw pick up the returning sound waves, enabling it to interpret an object’s distance, size and shape.

Dolphins lack vocal cords. Muscles inside the blowhole produce the squeaks, moans, warbles and other sounds that you can hear our dolphins demonstrate. And each dolphin has a distinct whistle to identify itself, much like a name. But this chorus of sounds is not merrymaking. It’s communication. The vocalizations, as well as such behaviors as tail slapping, biting, or rubbing, may be a means of keeping track of one another, courtship, or alerting others to danger. Researchers are trying to translate the gestures. Whether humans ever crack the code, dolphins’ complex language points to their intelligence. The next time you visit Shedd Aquarium, listen for the distinctive sounds each dolphin makes.

How Shedd protects Pacific white-sided dolphins for future generations.
With less than 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins in North American aquariums, the animals in Shedd’s care provide a rare window into the biology and behavior of this little-studied species. For more than two decades, Shedd has partnered on research efforts with universities, government agencies and other members of the North American cooperative breeding program for Pacific white-sided dolphins.

Studying Pacific white-sided dolphins in human care increases understanding of their biology, behavior, and sensitivity to environmental changes—all of which allow us to inform protection management strategies for those in the wild, and to provide better care for the animals at Shedd

Shedd’s animal care experts and veterinarians have gathered detailed data that focuses on reproductive studies and life cycles. This data provides insights into Pacific white-sided dolphins’ social structure, behavior, reproduction, biology, and vulnerability to environmental change. The collective histories of a population's genetic and demographic identity–known as studbooks–are invaluable tools that track and manage each individual cared for in AZA-Accredited Zoos and Aquariums and partner facilities. Shedd Aquarium’s Senior Director of Marine Mammals Lisa Takaki manages the world’s information as the studbook keeper for Pacific white-sided dolphins.

Some of Shedd’s most notable work includes:

Hearing and bioacoustics research
This study looks at Pacific white-sided dolphin hearing thresholds, responses to sounds, and vulnerability to underwater noise. Until the involvement of Shedd and other accredited zoos and aquariums , similar research was largely limited to data from bottlenose dolphins and killer whales. Through this research, Shedd:
• Provided insight into how underwater sounds can affect Lagenorhynchus species living near study sites.
• Was involved with first-of-its-kind studies on echolocation in Pacific white-sided dolphins.
• Partnered with academic researchers to study how the species responded to different sound frequencies. This was based on concerns that human-generated noise in the world’s oceans could harm cetaceans.

Studies of reproductive physiology
Pacific white-sided dolphins are relatively abundant in the wild, but little is known about their about their reproductive biology. This makes it hard to predict theresiliency of the species regarding disturbances in their native habitat. This research contributes to best management practices for the Pacific white-sided dolphins in accredited zoos and aquariums and in the wild. Through these studies, Shedd:
• Helped advance knowledge of Pacific white-sided dolphin reproduction cycles, including a better understanding of ovulation and gestation length in mature animals.
• Shared vital information with the international community of marine mammal experts. Every pregnancy at Shedd improves best practices for care of cetaceans in aquariums and in the wild. Much of the information about reproductive behavior (such as mother-calf interactions) and veterinary exam findings (such as blood values) would be difficult, if not impossible, to collect from wild animals.

Your support
More than 2 million people visit Shedd every year, but few people will ever have the opportunity to make direct connections with dolphins in the wild. Organizations like Shedd Aquarium provide this first-hand experience and inspire visitors to support the conservation of these magnificent animals and their habitats. Learn more about how you can support Shedd.

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Check out photos, video and stories about Shedd's dolphins.

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