What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

This graveyard gives scientists insight into lives of stranded dolphins

In our NewsHour Shares moment of the day, a group of citizen scientists use a dolphin graveyard to uncover how the majestic mammals live. The NewsHour's Teresa Carey reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We close with a different look at ocean life, how a group of citizen scientists use a dolphin graveyard to uncover how the majestic mammals live.

    The NewsHour’s Teresa Carey traveled to North Carolina to bring us tonight’s edition of a NewsHour shares.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Keith Rittmaster, curator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, leads 14 volunteers into the woods to a place he calls the dolphin graveyard.

    They plan to dig up the remains of a bottlenose dolphin named Moe. Rittmaster discovered Moe three decades ago during a photographic survey of dolphins in the wild. He takes photos of their dorsal fins. Each notch, scar, and blemish is a unique fingerprint that allows scientists to identify individual animals.

    Rittmaster has tracked dozens of dolphins this way. He spent years following Moe across his 100-mile habitat from Nags Head to Cape Lookout.

  • Keith Rittmaster:

    This catalogue contains one photo from every day that we have documented Moe, from 1992, and ending before he died on February 27, 2016.

  • Teresa Carey:

    The North Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network’s Vicki Thayer was among the first on the scene the day Moe passed away.

  • Vicki Thayer:

    So we arrived and examined the animal for a necropsy.

  • Teresa Carey:

    This necropsy, an animal autopsy, gives insight into how Moe died.

  • Vicki Thayer:

    Moe had been entangled in some kind of fishing monofilament line, and so that was the likely cause of death.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Over 300,000 whales and dolphins die globally from entanglements each year, like this dolphin Rittmaster found in 2011.

  • Keith Rittmaster:

    It wasn’t until we prepared the skull that we could tell that the bone actually had grown around that fishing line that was killing it.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Rittmaster’s collection is one of the most thorough in the state. He has whale teeth, an ear bone from a baby dolphin, and even ribs from a humpback whale.

    But his prized artifacts are reconstructed skeletons, many of which are one of a kind.

    Thayer gathers autopsy information on each beached animal, then helps Rittmaster bury them in his dolphin cemetery. Once two years pass, he assembles a crew of volunteers to exhume the skeleton. Exhuming Moe presents a rare opportunity for understanding the animal’s entire life and death.

    Scientists can use the teeth to determine age and the bones to understand some diseases.

  • K.C. Bierlich:

    For older animals, you can see that the bones are fused together more, and so that kind of tells you a lot about the animal, what stage of life it was when it passed away.

  • Teresa Carey:

    It takes four hours to exhume, catalogue, and clean Moe’s entire skeleton.

  • Vicki Thayer:

    My hope is that what we’re learning today can build and help animals in the future.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Even though it’s a graveyard, there is an overall feeling of optimism.

  • Vicki Thayer:

    If it weren’t for stranded animals, we wouldn’t know very much about them at all.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Moe’s completed skeleton will take two years to assemble. It’ll be on display at the North Carolina aquarium Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head in 2019.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Teresa Carey in Beaufort, North Carolina.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest