Making Waves

Story by Dr. Ann Kellett

Neurosurgeon Nick Jeffery has seen his fair share of unusual cases, so when he had the opportunity to perform the first spinal tap on a dolphin, saying “yes” was a no-brainer.

a dolphin in blue water
Rimmy, the rescued bottlenose dolphin © 2019 SeaWorld Parks

On an average day, Dr. Nick Jeffery spends much of his time trying to develop new treatments for dogs with spinal cord injuries, which means he has performed thousands of spinal taps—extracting the watery fluid around the brain—on dogs.

A member of the innovative and interdisciplinary Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience, one of just a few centers in the world that focus on spinal cord injuries, he also studies the loss of neurologic function associated with injury to the cruciate ligament in the knee and, specifically, whether the common experience of feeling unsteady after the knee is stabilized by surgery is neurological in origin and how it might be fixed. 

These injuries are common in both dogs and humans; 15 to 20 dogs come through the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Small Animal Hospital (SAH) each week with ligament injuries.

But when the professor of neurology and neurosurgery got the call to join a team in performing the first-ever spinal tap on a live dolphin, he jumped at the chance to be a part of something “quite interesting.”

Dolphins Are Cool—And Tricky

“I didn’t know anything about dolphins except that they’re cool,” he said. “I learned that only a few have been successfully anesthetized until recently. It’s risky. While CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) sampling has been performed on dead dolphins, this was the first for a live dolphin.”

This one, Rimmy, was a young, female bottlenose, the most common species, seen in TV shows like Flipper and at aquariums and marine parks. 

Like hundreds of others each year, Rimmy was stranded along the Gulf Coast. She was found in September 2017 at Sea Rim State Park in Sabine Pass, and a marine mammal rescue group treated her in Galveston for pneumonia, nasal parasites, and other ailments.

But before the staff of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could find her a permanent home, they had to make sure she was healthy.

The fear was that she might have Brucella, the pathogen that causes brucellosis, a highly contagious disease found in many species of animals, as well as about half a million humans each year and can cause brain disease in dolphins.

“They took blood samples and did other tests that all indicated that she may or may not have it. They couldn’t be sure,” Jeffery said.

The only way to rule out the possibility was to perform a spinal tap to extract and test some of the watery fluid that surrounds the brain.

Healthy Or Not?

dolphin prepared for surgery
Rimmy received the first-ever spinal tap to be performed on a dolphin at SeaWorld San Antonio in early December 2018. © 2019 SeaWorld Parks

That meant anesthetizing her—a huge deal because dolphins don’t fare well out of the water and it’s difficult to give them oxygen during a procedure because they breathe differently, holding their breath almost all of the time, unlike other mammals. 

“Humans breathe in and out all the time, but most of the time a dolphin’s lungs are full of air so that it can stay underwater,” Jeffery said. “The anesthetists had to try to mimic that for more than eight hours during the procedure.”

In addition, a dolphin’s larynx, or “voice box,” can either point forward through their mouth or upward so that it goes through their blowhole, which can present a problem when trying to insert tubes to anesthetize a dolphin. 

Fortunately, a team of dolphin and sea lion anesthesia specialists was on hand, including SeaWorld veterinarians Dr. Jennifer Camilleri, Dr. Steve Osborn, and Dr. Hendrik Nollens, as well as SeaWorld’s animal husbandry team.  

Rimmy was sedated and then placed in a hammock on a crane and lifted out of the water. The veterinary team used ultrasound to place an intravenous catheter and kept her skin wet throughout the intensive procedure. They also had to keep her lungs from crushing since she was more than six feet long and weighed about 250 pounds. 

Then, it was Jeffery’s turn. While Jeffery has performed thousands of spinal taps on dogs, he had to study dolphin anatomy in order to correctly account for the shape of the skull and the relationship of the brain to the spinal cord. 

“While I initially thought it would be very different in dolphins—because of the shape of the skull and because the relationship of the brain to the spinal cord is completely different—since I’ve completed the procedure, I realize that it’s not so different from a dog,” he said.

The one big difference: “the needle was huge compared to what I use on dogs!” Jeffery said.

Healthy And Ready For A New Home

When the procedure was finished, the team took Rimmy off of the ventilator and made sure she could move her larynx to her blowhole to breathe on her own before placing her in a shallow pool.

“There were about six people in the pool with her, ready to get her out if there was a problem. I made sure she was all right and swimming around before I left,” he said.

All of the tests came back negative for infectious disease, which meant she could mix with the other dolphins at the center and eventually be re-homed.

“It was nice to be able to contribute to this because it meant that Rimmy could go live a nice life, which she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do,” Jeffery said.


Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of CVMBS Today.

For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences;; 979-862-4216

Making Waves

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons