Student’s research project looks at hearing loss in dolphins

Megan Strobel conducts hearing tests on a dolphin.

Megan Strobel and others are shown performing hearing tests on a dolphin at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, Florida,

Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, second-year University of Florida veterinary student Megan Strobel remembers her very first dolphin encounter: While on a boat heading for a favorite vacation spot in the Bahamas, a pod of spinner dolphins danced around the bow and in the wake, captivating her with their movements and easy grace.

Her fascination with marine mammals only deepened with time.

“I wanted to know everything about them,” she said.

Strobel initially wanted to become a marine biologist, but later developed an interest in human medicine. After participating in her first manatee health assessment, she decided to pursue marine mammal health.

“I felt this combined my interests in medicine with my passion for marine mammals,” she said.

Soon after entering veterinary school, Strobel reached out to Dr. Mike Walsh, co-director of the UF Aquatic Animal Health Program, inquiring about the possibility of working together on a research project involving stranded cetaceans.

“Although originally the project began as an imaging study on deafness, Dr. Walsh had noticed some interesting behavioral patterns in deaf cetaceans through his experience, and wanted to test whether there were significant numbers associated with those revelations. So he came up with the idea, but as I did some research into hearing loss and behavior, I became very interested and passionate about the project.”

Strobel received the Bill Medway Research Award from the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine to pursue the project. Her study included spending four days at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida. During that time, she completed auditory evoked potentials – a recognized method of assessing hearing in dolphins — on four individuals, in collaboration with Katie Moore of the IFAW.

The research center recently highlighted Strobel’s study in its monthly newsletter.

Strobel will collect and assimilate data from other auditory research performed on dolphins at other facilities as well.

“We are trying to identify different ways of diagnosing deafness in cetaceans, starting with behavioral cues, going into the auditory evoked potential and looking at a few known deaf individuals who have died for other reasons,” Strobel said, adding that the study will use CT and/or MRI, as well as gross necropsy findings to examine structural differences to better assess the role that hearing loss might play in causing dolphins to strand, leading to their deaths.

“We hope that this study will improve the welfare of animals both in the wild and in managed collections,” Strobel said. “Understanding the causes of deafness and how to diagnose it will be crucial in the future as ocean noise increases.”
Ultimately, Strobel hopes that hearing studies will become part of the regular physical exams for marine mammals in captivity.

“Hearing is such a huge part of how marine mammals make sense of their environment,” she said. “Knowing the level at which an animal hears can change its well-being by helping animal care teams understand some of their behavior, as well as how to move forward in husbandry.”

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December 2014

Megan Strobel conducts hearing tests on a dolphin.

Student’s research project looks at hearing loss in dolphins

Student research project examines hearing loss in dolphins and ways to diagnose deafness.

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