Scripps Researcher Conducting Cutting-Edge Killer Whale Heart Rate Study at SeaWorld San Diego

ORLANDO, Fla. (August 10, 2015) – New research is being conducted with a killer whale at SeaWorld San Diego to evaluate cardiac function. This work will not only benefit veterinarians’ diagnostic efforts, but may prove critical to improving cardiac monitoring of free ranging whales and understanding diving physiology.

The heart rate monitor is very similar to the devices cardiologists use on human patients, but it has been modified for the marine environment.  Paul Ponganis, Ph.D, a research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego, is studying electrocardiograms and heart rate of SeaWorld’s oldest killer whale, Corky – estimated to be about 50 years old – as well as other SeaWorld animals.  The study is looking to develop reliable techniques to record electrocardiograms on whales while they are in the water, document cardiac characteristics at rest and during exercise, and develop reliable suction cup attachment techniques that can ultimately be applied to large whales in the wild.

While greater heart research has been conducted with bottlenose dolphins, reports of heart rates in larger cetaceans such as killer whales, beluga whales, and deep-diving pilot whales are rare and limited. The documentation of minimum and peak heart rates during sinus arrhythmia (the increase during inhalation and decline during exhalation) in these larger whales at rest is valuable for comparison to rates during breath holding activities like underwater swimming and diving. The collections of cardiac conduction patterns in large whales at SeaWorld during the different phases of the study will provide a baseline for comparison. The data also will be relevant to develop physiological modeling for these larger whales.

Repeated access to healthy whales at SeaWorld in a controlled and safe environment is the only way Ponganis’ research is possible. Gathering cardiac data at rest and during different swimming and diving behaviors allows examination of the heart rate to stroke rate (number of strokes taken per minute of swimming) and the potential linkage of the cardiovascular response (heart rate and muscle blood flow) to stroke effort.  Following the learnings discovered at SeaWorld, both in data collection and the development of reliable suction-cup electrode attachment techniques, Ponganis plans to continue his research with wild cetaceans.

Video and Photographs:

  • Attaching heart-rate monitoring suction-cups on and collection of heart rate data with Corky the killer whale.

Interview opportunities:

  • Paul Ponganis, Ph.D., Research Physiologist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego
  • Dr. Hendrik Nollens, staff veterinarian, SeaWorld San Diego
  • Katey Danforth, killer whale trainer, SeaWorld San Diego

About SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment™ is a leading theme park and entertainment company delivering personal, interactive and educational experiences that blend imagination with nature and enable its customers to celebrate, connect with and care for the natural world we share. The Company owns or licenses a portfolio of globally recognized brands including SeaWorld®, Shamu® and Busch Gardens®. Over its more than 50-year history, the Company has built a diversified portfolio of 11 destination and regional theme parks that are grouped in key markets across the United States, many of which showcase its one-of-a-kind collection of approximately 89,000 marine and terrestrial animals. The Company’s theme parks feature a diverse array of rides, shows and other attractions with broad demographic appeal which deliver memorable experiences and a strong value proposition for its guests.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is one of the world’s foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal welfare, training, husbandry and veterinary care.  The Company collectively cares for what it believes is one of the largest zoological collections in the world and has helped lead advances in the care of animals. The Company also rescues and rehabilitates marine and terrestrial animals that are ill, injured, orphaned or abandoned, with the goal of returning them to the wild. The SeaWorld rescue team has helped more than 26,000 animals in need over the last 50 years.

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