Natalia Diaz (right) taking bottlenose dolphin identification photos. | CZS-SDRP/NMFS Permit #26622

The Midwest is probably the last place one might think of for studying wild dolphin populations, but two local teenage girls spent eight months doing just that.

River Forest’s Daaniyah Mirza and Natalia Diaz, of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, were two of eight students to work alongside scientists as a part of the Marine Mammal Research Expedition through the Chicago Zoological Society, the non-profit that operates the Brookfield Zoo. 

Participants in the free educational fellowship trained throughout the eight-month period, meeting in-person at the zoo every Saturday in January and then virtually in the months after. The extracurricular program ended last month with a weeklong trip to Sarasota, Fl., where they conducted field research.

During their trip to Florida, Mirza, Diaz and their peers in the fellowship program spent as many as eight hours a day on boats alongside Katie McHugh, Randy Wells and their research team. McHugh and Wells are staff and senior scientists, respectively, of the Chicago Zoological Society and based at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. Wells serves as director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.

While at sea, fellows were tasked with monitoring wild dolphin populations. Each boat typically had three or four fellows on board and the fellows rotated photographing wild dolphins, filling out the dolphin sighting paperwork and taking temperature of the water. The young scientists experienced firsthand how research tactics must sometimes be changed to account for environmental factors.

“What I found interesting is that they’re starting to record temperature at depth to see if dolphins can still find sanctuary in those cooler, deeper temperatures because of the rising water temperatures in Florida,” said 17-year-old Diaz, a senior at Jones College Prep. “Right now, they’re seeing some of the highest water temperatures down there.”

Until recently, the research team only took the water’s temperature at surface-level, according to Diaz, but while the fellows were there, the team began taking the temperature at the bottom of the ocean, as well as at the top, with each dolphin sighting. 

The fellows did not get to see the results of their findings, however. Their week in Florida ended before they could conduct analysis of the temperature data, but the fellows did manage to log in some hours at the lab while there. They learned to identify dolphin species and document the physical features of individual dolphins. Just as no two humans have the same scars, no two dolphins have the same scrapes. 

The researchers also taught the young scientists how to navigate their database, so the information acquired in the field can be used in different situations, such as changes in dolphin behaviors.

“Had they noticed a difference in behavior of the dolphins based on all the data points they’ve collected, they could trace it back to what was happening in that area,” said Mirza, an Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate. 

Should the researchers discover such a scenario as boats overcrowding waters, pushing dolphins out of an area, researchers can then call on people nearby to change their behaviors, Mirza explained. 

Now a freshman studying biology with a specialization in ecology at Loyola University Chicago, Mirza told Wednesday Journal working directly in the field with professionals was “amazing.” Some have as many as 15 years of experience working with these wild dolphins, making them able to identify a particular dolphin’s maternal grandmother. 

“Just hearing them being so inspired about their work was really nice,” Mirza said.

Before going to Florida, the fellows took specialized training, examined adverse human influences on wild dolphins and studied research methods and the natural history of the bottlenose dolphin. Each fellow also created independent research projects. 

Diaz, an aspiring veterinarian, conducted hers on environmental literacy and convergent evolution, such as dolphins and sharks both having pectoral fins, despite never sharing a common ancestor. For Mirza’s, she looked at the symbiotic relationship between environmental betterment and marine animals, focusing on how echolocation can gauge the effects of environmental damage on sea creatures. She also studied how likely people are to change behaviors when presented with evidence of climate change’s impact on marine life.

Their projects, as well as their hard work, delighted Chris Conner, manager of the King Conservation Science Scholars program. Conner worked with Mirza and Diaz throughout the Marine Mammal Research Expedition, a fellowship within the Brookfield Zoo’s wider King Conservation Science Scholars program, which is funded by King Family Foundation. 

“I’m absolutely proud of them,” Conner said of the teens. “They’re dedicated to what they’re learning but they’re also pouring into us valuable information about what exactly young people are willing to do for our environment.”