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Florida International University researchers have developed a tool that can tell a dolphin’s age through a small skin sample. It’s called the Bottlenose Dolphin Epigenetic Age Estimation Tool — or BEAT.  

Wait, we can’t already age dolphins? 

Well yes, but it’s not an easy task. It involves pulling a dolphin’s tooth and then cutting it in half and counting the growth layers similar to counting the rings on a tree trunk. This is much quicker, and less invasive.  

Why this matters 

Having an accurate and fast way to age dolphins can help scientists evaluate the overall health of a population 

For example, if a dolphin population skews older, it will impact their chance for survival. But, a younger population could be more vulnerable to predators. An even distribution of age ranges is a sign of a healthy population.

FIU marine biologist Jeremy Kiszka said he can also use this information to understand how a dolphin’s diet changes with age, and how age might affect the pollutant levels in a dolphin’s tissue.

What’s next? 

The researchers will be implementing BEAT to research a population of dolphins in Naples, Fla. The team also hopes to develop similar tools to age other marine species, like sharks.  

The takeaway message 

Scientists now have a new tool in their toolbox to age a dolphin without pulling teeth. This tool could help them better understand population health.  

Kudos to:

The research, which was published in Frontiers in Marine Science, is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation. FIU researcher Jose Eirin-Lopez and Ph.D. student Andria Beal were the lead authors on this study.  

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