With a long common name, and an even more polysyllabic scientific name—Lagenorhynchus obliquidens—you might want to call Shedd's seven Pacific white-sided dolphins “lags” for short, like the marine mammal trainers do. Shedd is one of only three U.S. aquariums where you can see this exceptionally acrobatic species, so get to know the lags better!
Cetacean manager Maris Muzzy, who has been working with Shedd’s dolphins since 1989, provides updates and insights for Makoa, Munchkin, Katrl, Kukdlaa, Kri and Sagu. (Asked if she has a special relationship with any of them, she said, “I could not single out a lag. I love them all equally.”)
Female Kri (KREE) is the oldest. She’s also one of the larger animals at 6’5” and 205 pounds. Kri was about 6 when she arrived at Shedd with three other dolphins in March 1991, about six weeks before the opening of the Oceanarium. Before that, Maris was one of her caregivers and trainers at a facility in California. Like most of Shedd’s dolphins, Kri’s name comes from the language of the Tlingit, a large group of Pacific Northwest Coast Native Americans. Her name means “nine,” a reference to an early identification number.
Above each eye, Kri has a small white half-moon-shaped patch that looks like an eyebrow. The markings are a little hard to spot, but even from a distance, they give her a singular look. Maris, who has known Kri since the dolphin was about 4, notes that “she seems to have mellowed with age.”
Katrl (kuh-TREHL) is visibly the largest dolphin at 7 feet and 280 pounds. If you need another field mark, she has a tall, triangular-shaped dorsal fin with a white stripe along the leading edge. Or during an aquatic presentation, look for a dolphin whose jumps are super high.
Katrl, whose name means “to breath air” in Tlingit, was about 6 when she arrived at Shedd in December 1993. She gave birth to a male calf, Kukdlaa, in 2016. Katrl is still nursing him occasionally, but Maris expects the now-juvenile dolphin will be weaned soon.
Munchkin was born Oct. 21, 2000, at SeaWorld Texas and has been at Shedd since late 2015. “She has pretty dark marks around her eyes, like shadowing,” Maris says. “And her peduncle”—the base of her flukes—“is lighter gray than most of the rest of the animals in our collection. She’s a different color than everybody else. She’s also one of the smallest animals in the group.” Munchkin is a petite 6 feet long and 195 pounds—only larger than not-quite-3-year-old Makoa.
Maris says that Munchkin had “a really solid repertoire” of behaviors when she came to Shedd and didn’t require additional training for husbandry procedures or to fit into the presentations. And she excels at a new behavior, a vertical jump. Lags can leap 15 to 20 feet in the air. “We’ve been training it with all the dolphins—straight up and down again, without a flip. She’s doing a nice high jump. It’s her signature behavior right now.”
Sagu (SAH-goo) was born in Secluded Bay on May 28, 2012. His name means “joy” in Tlingit, and as the first successful lag birth at Shedd, he definitely is. A strong calf from the start, he was skillfully guided through his immediate critical milestones, including bonding, slipstreaming and nursing, by first-time mom Piquet.
Today Sagu is 6’3” in length and 205 pounds—and he’s still growing. Adult male lags are typically larger than adult females. And as the oldest of the three young males, he’s also the largest, although Kukdlaa is catching up fast, Maris says.
You’ll see Sagu in most aquatic presentations. While his repertoire of behaviors doesn’t quite match what the adult females can do, Maris says he’s learning quickly. “A behavior we use to demonstrate the lags’ incredible speed is a low, fast porpoise, with the dolphins shooting out of the water at a low trajectory, and Sagu is really good at that.”
Maris continues, “As an adult now, Sagu is in the process of figuring out where he fits into the social hierarchy, and he’s asserting himself a little more. We also see him display breeding behavior toward some of the animals. We haven’t seen any success yet this year, but he’s definitely shaking up the social group.”
Makoa (mah-KOH-ah) was born June 1, 2015. He is currently 6 feet long and weighs 160 pounds. (He’s shown at 1 month old, above, and last month, below.)
“Makoa is one of our highest jumpers now,” Maris says, “and he just recently learned a breach behavior on cue, so he will fly through the air on this breach. He’ll turn and do a hug arc on his side. He also just learned the voluntary blood-taking behavior. Those are two big new ones for him.”
“Makoa,” by the way, is Hawaiian for “fearless.” Through the trusting relationship he has with the marine mammals staff and his positive-reinforcement training, Makoa seems ready to take on the each new challenge and even give it his own spin.
Shedd’s youngest Pacific white-sided dolphin is Kukdlaa (KOOK-dlah), born to Katrl on April 18, 2016. His Tlingit name translates as “bubbles.” He appears to take after mom, currently Shedd’s largest dolphin. He is 6’3”—the same as almost 6-year-old Sagu. At 180 pounds, he’s also lanky, which is typical for a young cetacean still in the midst of a growth spurt. Maris says that between birth and 2 years old, dolphins experience their most dramatic period of growth. He was approximately 3 feet long and weighed about 25 pounds at birth. (He’s a day old in the photo above. Below, Kukdlaa (closer to the trainer) and Katrl are shown during a training session last month.)
Maris says Kukdlaa jumped into training from the start. Hovering near mom (and his next meal) during her training sessions, the natural copycat mimicked some of her behaviors before his formal training began. He continues to add behaviors to his repertoire.
You don’t have to wait for one of the regularly scheduled aquatic presentations to see the dolphins in action. “The lags are very aerial and you’ll often see them coming up with their own amazing versions of jumps and leaps on their own.,” says Maris.
“And when we aren’t interacting with the lags, we give them environmental enrichment devices—toys—to interact with. Guests can watch the dolphins playing with spray hoses, balls and even snow from outside. We have more than 100 toys in rotation to keep it interesting. Among their favorites right now are floating bumpers with carwash ‘kelp’ strips attached. They drag those around and pull them underwater.”
Outside of training sessions, the dolphins will also solicit interactions with the trainers. (That’s Munchkin, above.) “They are interested in water splashes and body rubs, just like the belugas,” Maris says, adding, “We don’t do tongue tickles, which the belugas enjoy, because of the dolphins’ many tiny sharp teeth. But they’ll bring toys over to play or slide out onto the dry areas so we’ll rub them down.”
The dolphins can also surprise this experienced trainer. “They’re constantly surprising me!” she admits. “When Makoa is learning a new behavior, and I ask him for a behavior that’s well established—one he’s been doing for a year, so he should know that cue solidly—he will sometimes offer me the new behavior instead, as if to say, look at this new thing I’m learning!”
We’re also learning from the lags. Because few zoological facilities keep them, little is known about Pacific white-sided dolphins compared to terrestrial species or even the popular bottlenose dolphin. For more than 25 years, however, Shedd has participated in collaborative efforts, including published studies that help the scientific community better understand lags’ hearing, acoustics, social behavior, reproductive physiology and immune system, providing a window into the biology and behavior of this ocean species.
“It’s hard to monitor and track them in the wild, so pretty much everything we know about young lags growing up we’ve learned in aquariums and zoos,” Maris says. That includes their gestation period, which is not quite 12 months; fetal growth, through ultrasound examinations; and how often and how much calves nurse. In fact, the only lag births scientists have ever observed have been in aquariums and zoos, including Katrl’s well-documented delivery of Kukdlaa, in progress above.
Now that you’ve met the dolphins, Maris has this suggestion for how you can help research and conservation efforts for these powerful, graceful and engaging marine mammals: Support Shedd, which is contributing to the body of knowledge about Pacific white-sided dolphins and their environment.
―Karen Furnweger, web editor