The U.S. Navy is trying to find out what’s making dolphins sick. Like humans, dolphins are mammals. Like humans, they have lungs. And like humans, they get lung infections.
That’s why a group of chemists and biologists recently convened in Sarasota, Florida, to develop a breathalyzer for dolphins: a tool to diagnose dolphins who contract mysterious pathogens when they violently expel and suck in air through their blowholes. For marine mammals, it’s the first instrument of its kind. (For drunk humans, not so much.)
Cristina Davis, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of California-Davis and lead author of the dolphin breathalyzer research, explains that dolphins can sometimes even be more vulnerable to lung problems than humans. “If we get influenza, we can go to the doctor. But marine mammals are very susceptible to infections because of the way they breathe,” she says. “They’re called explosive breathers, and their entire lung volume gets exchanged in a third of a second. If there are any contaminants at the surface, those pathogens could get inhaled into the deep lungs.”
Davis’s research group is the first to study what dolphins actually inhale. So far, using a breathalyzer sampling tool on bottlenose dolphins’ blowholes, her team has found that dolphins are breathing in volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), which can occur naturally, but also end up in the atmosphere because of man-made items like paint and car exhausts. Davis and her colleagues have also found a number of unique pathogens–some of which they’ve never encountered before.
Analyzing samples taken from the breathalyzer will help them figure out what those pathogens are. The next step, Davis says, is to develop a breathalyzer that can sample and diagnose the problem in one step. Right now her team is still studying dolphin breath in the lab, but the Navy–which maintains a dolphin fleet it wants to keep in good shape–is funding multiple years of the dolphin breathalyzer’s research and development.
“No one has ever looked at marine mammal breath before,” Davis says. “It’s really exciting because marine mammals are very much like us.”