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Dolphin's Death Concludes Mote's Longtime Study Of Its Life; 'We Will All Miss This Old Girl'

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SARASOTA, Florida -- A female wild dolphin monitored for 38 years by the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program based at Mote Marine Laboratory died May 22, leaving behind two documented generations of offspring to continue her legacy.

Waterfront residents found the 46-year-old dolphin — known as "FB5" by Program scientists — on a sandbar near Longboat Key. Mote staff recovered the dolphin, which had succumbed to illnesses and injuries that plagued her for months.

A necropsy, or animal autopsy, showed that FB5 had lost more than 100 pounds since her health was last assessed in 2001. She had developed non-healing skin lesions and suffered from organ failure, shark bites and a stingray barb in her lung. Examining her made for a bittersweet evening.

"We will all miss this old girl," said Dr. Randall Wells, Senior Scientist and manager of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, a partnership between the Chicago Zoological Society and Mote and the world's longest-running study of a wild dolphin population.

In March 1971, Wells and his colleagues tagged FB5 — in fact, she was one of the first dolphins tagged for identification by the group, which began monitoring Sarasota Bay's dolphins in 1970. Data gathered by Program researchers serves to inform marine mammal policy, research, conservation and education. By studying five generations of Sarasota Bay's 160 or so year-round resident dolphins — including FB5's calves and grandcalves — Program scientists continue nearly four decades of learning about these amazing marine mammals.

Monitoring dolphins until life's end is one way researchers gain crucial knowledge about their social dynamics, lifespan and conservation challenges.

Over FB5's lifetime, scientists observed her 850 times and considered her a "core member" of Sarasota Bay's year-round dolphin community, Wells said. FB5 was seen with five different calves, and two of her daughters survived to have so far produced three calves each. She spent much of her life with other females and calves in Palma Sola Bay and Anna Maria Sound. As she aged, FB5 shifted her range south and socialized less, often swimming alone. "We cannot determine whether the observed changes in behavior were related to declining health," Wells said.

Program scientists do know that FB5 lost a close associate, a 54-year-old dolphin known as Ms. Mayhem, in October 2008, following shark attacks.

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