"Bionic" Dolphin Getting New Tail

Thanks to high-tech materials and innovation, prosthetic limbs enable amputees to walk, run, and even swim. But one world-renowned prosthetist has a new patient that has presented him with quite a challenge.

On The Early Show, resident veterinarian Dr. Debbye Turner reported on Kevin Carroll's latest prosthetic patient: a dolphin.

Carroll is one of the world's leading prosthetists. Besides his work with people, he has designed prosthetics for dogs, an ostrich, and even a duck.

And now he is working on Winter.

Winter, an Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, is a playful two-year-old. She was found off the coast of Florida, caught in a crab trap. When she arrived at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, CMA CEO David Yates said her condition was critical.

"The first few days, we really didn't think she'd live at all. And what happened is we had a 24-hour around-the-clock care by our veterinary staff, our animal care staff, (and) our volunteers that literally watched her every second of the day," Yates said.

Winter survived, but she lost her tail and was left with merely a stump.

Without a tail, she can neither swim as fast nor jump as high as a normal dolphin. Yates said her condition put her in a unique situation. "She's had to adapt to how to swim without a tail, which no dolphin has ever done in captivity. We didn't know if she could do that," he said.

Winter's swimming style changed from up and down to side to side. Veterinarians were concerned that this unusual swimming form might alter the long-term health of her spine. The vets, therefore, began to explore designing a prosthetic tail for Winter.

Carroll contacted Winter's caretakers after he got word of the need for a prosthetic tail, and he offered his services. However, Carroll didn't realize how large a project it would be.

"I came straight down, saw Winter (and) felt really sorry for her. And I came in and I said, 'OK, we'll fit her little tail. Not a big deal.' Little did I know it was going to take a year and a half to do," Carroll said.

Designing a prosthetic for a dolphin was a trickier process than Carroll anticipated. He said, "With a person, when we fit a socket on them, we have one long, solid bone. We don't have to have the socket moving in every direction. With a dolphin, it needs to move along with her full spine."

Casts are used to monitor Winter's growth and body shape. The casts are also able to provide the mold for Winter's new prosthetic. Carroll noted that it is important for Winter to be able to adapt to having a new tail. "We can't just put a prosthetic on and walk out the door. We have to slowly introduce the prosthetic," he said.

Teaching Winter how to use the prosthetic device also presents a challenge. Carroll will have to aide her in learning how to once again swim up and down like a typical dolphin.

The last step is to attach the actual tail. That's still a few months away, but Winter's caretaking team is incredibly excited to get her back to full strength.

"It's going to be powerful seeing her coming out of the water with that tail," Carroll said. "I know she's going to do it. We're really looking forward to that."
  • Daniel Aven

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