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 Kri, Katrl, Munchkin and Makoa. (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.”)
The newest addition to the dolphin pod at Shedd is Katrl’s calf Harmony, born on August 31, 2020. Her name represents the balance of humans and animals living in harmony on our shared blue planet. Harmony’s name was chosen by fourth-grader classrooms across the city at Chicago Public Schools.
She continues to grow, thrive and meet milestones, including bonding, nursing, socializing, and much more. While she is the smallest dolphin at Shedd, she weighs in at 100 pounds, which is a gain of 70 pounds since birth, and is approaching 5 feet long.
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.
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—smaller than Kri but larger than 5-year-old male 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.”
Makoa (mah-KOH-ah) was born June 1, 2015. The young adult male is currently 6 feet long and weighs 160 pounds.
“Makoa is one of our highest jumpers now,” Maris says, “and he just recently learned a backflip behavior on cue. Another impressive behavior is his breach. He’ll turn and do a huge arc on his side, flying through the air.”
“Makoa” 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.
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.
“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 are floating bumpers with car wash ‘kelp’ strips attached. They drag those around and pull them underwater.”
Outside of training sessions, the dolphins will also solicit interactions with the trainers. “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 lags are very aerial and you’ll often see them coming up with their own amazing versions of jumps and leaps on their own.”Maris Muzzy, cetacean manager
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 almost 30 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. Nearly all lag births observed by scientists have been in aquariums and zoos.
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
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