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Today’s Research, Tomorrow’s Action: Studying Bottlenose Dolphins

Monday, August 08, 2016


Written by Meleah Lewis '16; Photo by Katie Merritt '16

Imagine a serene summer sunrise on the coast. The sky is a vibrant orange and the ocean is calm, aside from the occasional penetration of dark-colored fins. Those fins often belong to bottlenose dolphins, which have become a stamp to coastal areas, like Wilmington. Locals and tourists alike love watching dolphins from the shore, but for junior Tiffany Ernst, those dolphins have a much greater significance. She has spent the past year analyzing dolphins’ acoustic tissue to gain insight to how it is formed and to discover critical points in a dolphin’s life when this essential tissue develops. Ernst’s research could open doors to facilitate research on other marine mammals since many diving marine mammals share similarities with dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphins have two types of adipose tissue: blubber and acoustic. Blubber is used for energy storage and thermoregulation. Acoustic tissue is located in the melon, or upper forehead region of dolphins. Acoustic tissue allows dolphins to hear and echolocate, which is how dolphins perceive depth and find food in the ocean. Previous research has shown that stranded dolphins with signs of starvation have decreased quantity of blubber, while there is very little depletion of the dolphins’ acoustic tissue. Expounding upon previous research, Ernst posed the hypothesis that dolphins do not metabolize, or break down, acoustic tissue to use it for energy, even when food is scarce. If dolphins expend their acoustic tissue, they will no longer be able to communicate with other dolphins, use echolocation or find food, which could be detrimental.

Ernst uses a technique known as Western Blotting to detect proteins related to the assimilation of glucose in blubber and acoustic tissue of bottlenose dolphins. This technique has not previously been used to test dolphins’ acoustic tissue due to its complex nature. She is testing to discover differences in the amount of Glut4 in blubber versus acoustic tissue. Glut4 is a type of glucose transport protein and thus is a biochemical marker for a sugar transport protein, which is representative of carbohydrate metabolism. Ernst is also testing to see if there is a correlation between a dolphin’s age and the amount of Glut4 present in the dolphins’ acoustic tissue. Her current hypothesis posits that there will be a higher concentration of Glut4 in younger dolphins than in older dolphins. Previous research has shown minimal metabolic activity in the melon of adult dolphins, which could be indicative of a critical point for acoustic tissue development in young dolphins.

Ernst's research is unique because she is working primarily alone, with guidance from Department of Biology and Marine Biology faculty Dr. Heather Koopman and Dr. Steven Kinsey.

“My research has taught me to be independent. I respect Dr. Koopman’s teaching style,” said Ernst. “Dr. Koopman encourages me, but the work I do is truly my own.” Kinsey taught Ernst the technique of protein blotting and has allowed her to work in his lab.

Also essential to Ernst's research is the importance of exact measurement and working with significant figures, which was stressed in courses she took with Dr. Bart Jones, professor of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Dr. Steven Skrabal, associate director for education, Center for Marine Science.

Upon completion of her research, Ernst will graduate with honors in marine biology and hopes to conduct similar research in graduate school. Although her research cannot take steps towards conservation, it could facilitate future research regarding how acoustic tissue develops. Understanding how acoustic tissue develops is important as noise levels in the ocean continue to rise, which could inhibit the development of this essential tissue. Ernst’s experience in the College of Arts and Sciences has not only broadened her individual scope of knowledge, but has the potential to better scientists’ understanding of bottlenose dolphins and other marine mammals long after she receives her diploma.