Breathalyser used to diagnose dolphin health

Researchers have developed a type of breathalyser that can diagnose dolphin health by measuring the metabolites in their breath.

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Michelle Starr
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Dolphin encounter image by Ste Elmore, CC BY 2.0

Dolphins are getting breathalysed, but not to stop them driving under the influence: a team of researchers has developed a special breathalyser that allows them to check the health of the animals in a non-invasive way.

American Chemical Society

Professor Cristina Davis and colleagues at the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have teamed up with researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego and the Chicago Zoological Society's Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida to develop the device, which is placed over the dolphin's blowhole and can be used on both wild dolphins and those in human care.

Because dolphins are "explosive breathers" -- exchanging up to 90 percent of their lung capacity in less than a second -- collecting just one breath is extremely useful. The device collects and freezes the dolphin's breath in an insulated tube. These samples can then be used to create profiles based on the different metabolites found therein -- compounds that offer clues as to diet, activity levels, environmental exposures and disease rates.

The researchers have already created baseline profiles from healthy dolphins; metabolite profiles that show variance from these profiles indicate that the dolphin's health is suffering due to disease or other factors.

This technique doesn't just have implications for dolphin health -- the collective health of the marine mammals, Professor Davis noted, is often a good indicator for the overall health of their surrounding ocean. The device could also be adapted and used to help diagnose the health of other marine mammals.

Dolphins have been dying in record numbers in the Atlantic since July 2013 because of a measles-like virus. Although these numbers are decreasing, researchers are keen to keep a careful eye on the animals' health.