By RUTH SHARPE
ZOOMARINE, THE educational, conservation park in Guia, is celebrating after successfully breeding a baby dolphin using artificial insemination.
The calf, named Alfa, was born on October 22, and is healthy and living with her mother Cher in a maternity unit at Zoomarine.
This is the first time in the world that frozen sperm was used successfully to reproduce a baby dolphin and furthermore, the first time in Portugal that the insemination process was carried out without the use of sedatives or physical restraint.
The process began last year when researchers at Zoomarine decided they needed to strengthen the genetic variety at the park and avoid consanguinity problems in the bottlenose species. Until then, all the dolphin offspring at Zoomarine were from the same father, a 46-year-old male named Sam, the oldest bottlenose dolphin in the world, who has been at Zoomarine since 1992.
Marine parks usually expand their genetic variety by transporting animals between places. This proves to be logistically complex, especially with dolphins, due to the aquatic involvement, therefore the management at Zoomarine decided to assemble a team to attempt artificial insemination on some of their dolphins.
In October 2005, researchers from SeaWorld in America (pioneers in breeding and wildlife conservation) brought over frozen semen from some of their dolphins in return for some of Sam’s semen, widely regarded as a “genetic diamond”.
The team at Zoomarine then trained two female dolphins in the process of insemination so that the process could be carried out naturally, meaning that the dolphins are not subjected to sedation or put under physical restraint.
Cher was the dolphin chosen to try out the process on first as her body conditions were more suitable and she reacted better to the training. The insemination took place without a hitch that same month, lasting 29 minutes.
Just under 12 months later, Cher gave birth to a healthy female calf. The training that Cher went under meant that she did not have to be taken out of the water for the birth. This was the first time in Portugal that the process had been carried out in this manner. This has only happened with 10 dolphins worldwide, Alfa being the second in Europe.
The fact that this was also the first time in the world there has been a birth using frozen sperm presents a fantastic opportunity to use and transport gametes without the complexities of having to transport marine animals and therefore facilitates breeding.
Mother and daughter are both now living happily in the maternity unit Delfinário do Sam, a circular area with a diameter of 10 metres and with a moving floor.
According to Élio Vicente, Director of Science and Education at Zoomarine, Alfa, like most calves of her age is showing a very active, happy and curious personality, swimming and breathing properly and is very attached to her mother.
“The team of marine biologists, vets and trainers are keeping a close eye on her as there is a very high mortality rate among dolphins under one year of age,” says Vicente furthering that, “this is especially true with the bottlenose species as they have an incipient immune system.”
The team at Zoomarine are confident Alfa will grow into a healthy dolphin as she has already grown to 30 kilograms in under two months from her initial weight of between 12-15 kilograms when she was born. “We are very proud the way it has all been carried out, it’s the way nature should be working,” stated Vicente.