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The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit veterinary hospital, research, and educational center dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals and the study of their health. Since 1975, the Center has rescued and treated more than 16,500 marine mammals and has accumulated a body of knowledge about marine mammal and ocean health. Through public education about marine mammals, the Center hopes to foster ocean stewardship and conservation. For more information, visit http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Leopard Sharks Might Not Be Marine Mammals ~ But The Marine Mammal Center Helps to Solve a Mystery!

The Marine Mammal Center Blog is written by Dina N. Warren, Communications & Harbor Seal Crew volunteer.


A leopard Shark washes ashore, in distress and dying, on Ocean Beach in San Francisco.


Dr. Bill Van Bonn and Dr. Martha Delaney, work quickly to sample blood from the still living shark, to help current, scientific research on recent mass die-off of this important marine fish.

The leopard shark is a common sight along the California coastal shelf and within our own local waters. At this time of year, it is typical to find larger than normal numbers of these fish congregating in and around the San Francisco Bay, to breed and give birth. Lately, these particular sharks have been in the news because of large numbers reportedly washing ashore sick, dying or dead.

Just recently, The Marine Mammal Center's Stranding Department received a call from a concerned citizen in Tiburon, describing a large, 10 to 12 foot leopard shark struggling near shore in the town's small marina. The Center's chief veterinary scientist, Dr. Bill Van Bonn, decided they had a rare free moment from caring for the Center's primary pinniped patients, and responded to the call. (Prior to joining the Center, Dr. Van Bonn was senior director for animal care, at Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.) Once the team arrived, the shark had already disappeared back into the Bay.

Then, on Friday, June 10, 2011, the Center's Stranding Department received yet another leopard shark call, this time sighted near Ocean Beach, on the Peninsula. In addition, The California Department of Fish & Game had asked if the Center could lend support to their leopard shark mortality study. Again, Dr. Van Bonn was pleased to help by collecting blood samples from the still-living leopard shark. Working together with one of the Center's residents-in-training, Dr. Martha Delaney, whose specialty is part of the University of Illinois Zoo Pathology program; the veterinarians reached the struggling yet still-living shark, successfully collecting nearly 10 vials of blood. "Unfortunately, this shark was close to death when we arrived and expired moments after we completed our work," explained Dr. Van Bonn. "We were also asked to conduct some scientific studies using the Center's Laboratory and Necropsy Departments; so we collected the deceased shark and performed a post mortem dissection," added Dr. Van Bonn.

Of course, we all know the Center specializes in marine mammals, and last time anyone checked, sharks are not mammals -- though some species do bare live young, just like mammals! However, the health of all marine creatures is key to the Center's work, and crucial to marine mammals and fish -- and humans, alike! The Center's Necropsy Department will share comprehensive post mortem results, including; internal measurements, observational data, and multiple tissue samples. These data will be crucial to the California Department of Fish and Game's task of solving this mysterious die-off on one particular species.

Note: Sharks are an important indicator species of our ocean's health. Some scientists believe that Bay's reduced salinity, from heavy spring rains, may be a factor. This and other hypotheses are still under investigation.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Meet "Wildoctric!" ~ An Unusual Name for an Unusual Patient! Elephant Seal Weaner Gets Groundbreaking Surgery, Smooth Recovery & Happy Release!

Blog article & captions written by Dina N. Warren
Photos by Jackie Dolan & Stan Jensen


Wildoctric surveys her new ocean home at Drakes Bay. This female, elephant seal weaner successfully survived an amazing story of rescue, groundbreaking surgery, careful rehabilitation, and a heartwarming release! Pictured here on Chimney Rock Beach, in the Point Reyes National Seashore, she's ready to go home!

It's a picture perfect day for Wildoctric's beginning steps toward freedom. Here, she cautiously touches sand for the first time, after many weeks of treatment and recovery.

Swimming safely in her pool enclosure, just hours after her final surgery, Wildoctric experiences a smooth recovery. What a face -- is that gratitude in her eyes?!

Marjorie Boor, keeps a close eye on the first-ever sliding hiatal hernia surgery to be performed on an elephant seal! High-definition cameras and monitors guide and record this ground-breaking procedure.

Pictured in the Center's hospital, a laparoscopic gastropexy is performed on this young Northern Elephant Seal ~ a common procedure to humans, as well!

Meet "Wildoctric" --an unusual name for an unusual patient, and one who needed help for a serious, hidden medical condition. This young female Northern Elephant Seal was rescued in the middle of the Center's rescue range, on a beach in Monterey State Park, April 30, 2011. Wildoctric was extremely lethargic and suffering from severe malnutrition, weighing only 40 kilograms -- pups this age should weigh at least 75 kilograms! The Center's rescue team responded quickly to a concerned citizen's call, rescued and delivered her to the waiting veterinary team, back in Sausalito.

During her admit-exam, the veterinary staff noticed that the young elephant seal already had a green flipper tag - indicating that she had been counted only a few weeks prior at the Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Within days, the team realized that this wayward pelagic pup was suffering from something internal. "She was a poor eater, managing only a couple of whole fish, so we prescribed supplemental tube-feeding, but still, she couldn't keep her food down, vomiting frequently," explained Dr. Rebecca Greene, one of the Center's associate veterinarians. "Despite our best efforts, she was not able to consistently gain and keep weight-on," added Dr. Greene. Therefore, after nearly three weeks of erratic gains and losses, Dr. Bill Van Bonn, the Center's chief veterinary scientist, decided it was time for some more in-depth investigations.

"To my knowledge, this was the first time that anyone attempted these procedures on an elephant seal," explained Dr. Van Bonn. The team started by investigated the internal organs using a series of basic radio graphs, or x-rays, which revealed some abdominal abnormalities. A few days later, the team conducted more detailed contrast-radio graphs and a subsequent endoscopy revealed the underlying problem -- a sliding hiatal hernia! (These procedures are commonly performed on humans, where a tiny camera, mounted at the end of a long thin tube, is inserted through the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach.)

"There was something inside the abdominal region that was herniating, or moving, into the chest cavity -- and that "something" was her stomach!" explained Dr. Van Bonn. "So, we decided to perform a laparoscopic gastropexy to keep the stomach from moving into the thoracic cavity," added Dr. Van Bonn. On June 9, 2011, Wildoctric began a incredibly smooth recovery. Just hours after surgery, she accepted small amounts of prescribed whole fish, and was ready for more. Each day, her ration was carefully monitored and gradually adjusted-up. Originally, Wildoctric was admitted to the hospital at only 41 kilograms. But in just 20 days after surgery, she had gained nearly 20 kilograms and was released with other rehabilitated patients, at a healthy 61.5 kilograms! "Watching this marine mammal swimming and diving, and successfully retrieving whole fish on her own was a joy," said Deb Wickham, the Center's veterinary science operations manager. "Her treatment, rehabilitation and release outcome is what we all work for, each and every day!" added Wickham.

A miracle of science, and much tender loving care... Good luck Wildoctric, we're all so proud of you!

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five Elephant Seals Released... Ready to Meet Their Wild Brothers and Sisters!


Layla takes a rest moments after her release on Chimney Rock Beach. Seen here sniffing and chewing everything new in her surroundings, Layla rediscovers her love of playing with seaweed! (Photo-article: Dina Warren, volunteer, The Marine Mammal Center)

It was a day of joy, as five rehabilitated elephant seal patients were released back into their ocean home, on a calm, overcast morning, Friday, June 3, 2011, at Chimney Rock Beach, in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Layla, a young female pup, and four of her weaner pen-mates, Lindsey, Milo, Chantal, and Roark; were all released together, in an area where over 500 wild elephant seals were spotted, resting mostly on the inaccessible sandy beaches surrounding Drakes Bay.

These young elephant seals were rescued from various beaches throughout San Luis Obispo, San Francisco and Monterey counties. Each young seal was found alone, suffering from severe malnutrition. Once safely at the Center, it took them about 2 to 3 months to become fully rehabilitated, and strong enough to fend for themselves in the wild. "These pups came to us in pretty bad shape," said Ben Calvert, one of the Center's stranding and animal crew volunteers. "After being assessed by the veterinary staff, all five had to be rehydrated, using either tube-fed electrolytes or subcutaneous fluids. Then, after a period of tub-feeding using fish milkshakes, the young pinnipeds went through the different stages of fish school," added Calvert.

These young marine mammals, some less than 30 days old, did not have success discovering what and how to eat on their own. Therefore, they needed to "attend" what the Center calls, "fish school." First, the baby elephant seals have to be patiently, hand-fed whole fish. This is commonly done while they are out of the water -- on the floor of their enclosure. Next they have to learn how to accept fish, while in the water -- often in the shallow end of the pool. The final stage of "fish school" is when the seals are able to free-feed -- swimming and diving for fish that are tossed into their pools. Folks at the Center commonly call this, "graduating from fish school." It costs a dollar-a pound to feed these guys! But, it's worth every dime, especially when you get to see them so happy to be back in their ocean home - ready to meet their wild brothers and sisters! Good luck, gang!