Seven Seas at Brookfield Zoo is home to six common bottlenose dolphins, but it's 29-year-old Tapeko who is currently in the spotlight. She's about to become a mom for the third time. The staff found out earlier this year during a routine health exam.
"About six weeks, we think, after she could become pregnant is when we could first detect a fetal heartbeat or a fetus on ultrasound in her uterus," said Dr. Jennifer Langan, associate veterinarian, Brookfield Zoo.
From that moment on, Tapeko has been under the watchful eyes of the marine mammal staff with special prenatal care.
"Similar to human fetal monitoring, there's a lot that has to happen from the time you first detect a pregnancy to hopefully having a healthy baby," said Langan.
The most important monitoring tool is the ultrasound, making sure everything is developing normally. Special goggles are used in conjunction with the monitor to see more clearly.
"The ultrasounds are done along the pool edge. The animals have trust in the trainers, and they're able to position themselves and hold pretty darn still at the edge of the pool," said Langan. "We get down right with the dolphins and lay down next to them and the ultrasound is done with a probe in the water with the animal in the water."
If you're wondering how these gregarious creatures are trained to comply so easily to the medical exams, look no further than the dolphin presentations at Brookfield's Seven Seas.
"We do a lot of behaviors, we don't even showcase in our shows called medical or husbandry behaviors; these are some of the most important behaviors we train the animals to do, as they actually cooperate with their own veterinary care," said Rita Stacey, curator of marine mammals, Brookfield Zoo.
When the dolphins give the backside of their tail to a trainer, this behavior allows the staff to take blood samples.
"That is called a 'chuff' or in our terms coughing, and what we can actually do is put a petri dish over the blowhole and ask the dolphins to cough into it, culture it and see if there's any respiratory infection," Stacey said.
The dolphins receive routine physicals four times a year. Once Tapeko goes into labor, which could be any day now, the training and care staff kick into high gear. The birth could take anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours. The staff will be monitoring her the entire time, looking for any complications and ready to assist if need be. Once the calf is born, monitoring will continue 24/7 for several weeks. The first month is the most critical, making sure both mother and calf remain healthy and form a successful bond. You won't have to wait too long to greet the zoo's newest marine mammal baby, as long as the calf is doing well, the veterinary staff will open underwater viewing to zoo visitors within a few days after it's born.
A typical bottlenose dolphin calf weighs 45 pounds at birth and will nurse for one to two years. Their life expectancy averages about 30 years, but dolphins will continue to reproduce throughout their entire lifetime.