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Dolphin Researcher  What They Do

Just the Facts

Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists Career Video

Insider Info

dotA dolphin researcher is a scientist who studies dolphins.

Each dolphin researcher has a scientific specialty. While the focus of each researcher's work might be different, they all share dolphins as their main interest.

dotThe most common kind of dolphin researcher is a marine biologist or zoologist. These researchers study the natural behaviors and life histories of dolphins.

Biologists and zoologists spend hours observing dolphins and drawing conclusions from what they've seen. One of the behaviors now being researched is the likes and dislikes of dolphins.

Such research can be used in practical ways. For instance, if researchers can determine that dolphins do not like a particular sound and consequently do not go near it, they can use that sound to keep dolphins away from fishing nets.

dotMarine biologists also study the life history of the dolphin. For instance, they try to go to every beached, dead or sick dolphin they hear about. They try to determine the age of the dolphin (from the rings in their teeth -- like a tree), what the dolphin has eaten and why it died.

Their research often has direct influences on laws. If the researcher discovers that dolphins eat large amounts of a particular fish, then the government might pass laws to protect that type of fish. If the dolphins' health is endangered by pollution, the government might enact stricter pollution control laws.

dotThere are other types of scientists who are involved in dolphin research:

  • Acoustical engineers and audiologists study how dolphins navigate. That is, they study the "echolocating" capabilities of dolphins.
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists study the interaction between humans and dolphins. There has been a lot of interest in the interaction between dolphins and people who have special needs, like autistic children. It appears that some children benefit from interacting with dolphins, although the reasons for the benefits are unclear.
  • Experimental psychologists study the learning and perceptual abilities of dolphins.
  • Behavioral neuroscientists study the language capabilities of dolphins.

dotAny researcher who does fieldwork should be in good physical health. And those who are afraid of water need not apply!

"Dolphin research involves spending a lot of time working in remote areas in small boats," says Kathy Heise. She has studied dolphins as part of her PhD studies.

dotBecoming a dolphin researcher requires many skills. You will need skills with computers, people, equipment and boats. You will also frequently need teaching skills. Researchers must be able to use many of these skills at the same time.

"Developing basic mechanical skills, such as fixing outboards, comes in very handy," says Heise.

dotYou will also need to be a great scientist. "In order to succeed, each scientist must have well-honed skills in methodology combined with the ability to design proper experiments with the proper controls," says Mark Holder.

Holder is a behavioral neuroscientist. He studies the relationship between the brain and behavior. Some dolphins in captivity have learned a sign language with which they communicate with their trainers. Holder tests what the dolphins know about language.

This is not a field for the money-hungry, says Heise. "In all honesty, the prospects for dolphin researchers to make a go of it financially... are extremely poor if dolphin research is to be the sole source of income for the person," she says.

dotIf you want to be a dolphin researcher, you must be prepared to study hard and work hard. "Jobs are long, hard and competitive," says Denise Herzing of the Wild Dolphin Project in Florida. "Many jobs can be seasonal or temporary, depending on the grant environment."

dotEmployers look for strong skills in a variety of areas. "The skills that you learn as a scientist are very transferable," says Holder. "Technical reasoning, marketing and selling, computer operation and communication skills are all sought-after qualities."

dotRemember, there are opportunities to work with dolphins even if science isn't your thing. At the Mote Marine Laboratory, for example, only a third of the employees are scientists. The rest are involved in grant writing, communications, graphics, videography and teaching.

At a Glance

Study everything about dolphins

  • This is a very specialized career
  • Potential employers look for more than a love of dolphins
  • An advanced scientific degree is the basic required education