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Testing carbon monoxide's effects on dolphins

Carbon monoxide may not be so bad for some ma... 02:15

Scientists in San Diego are doing groundbreaking research that could change how doctors treat a number of illnesses. They're testing carbon monoxide levels in mammals at SeaWorld, and have found that it can be beneficial at certain levels.

Mike Tift, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is teaming up with SeaWorld's trainers and vets to conduct the research. What they're finding is that carbon monoxide -- which sends thousands of people to the emergency room with carbon monoxide poisoning each year -- isn't all bad.

"A lot of the marine mammals that dive deep, will shut blood flow off to organs and tissues in order to conserve oxygenated blood for the organs that matter, like the heart and the brain. And so because they do that, because they shut the flood flow off, this carbon monoxide actually could prevent injuries from happening in those other tissues," Tift told CBS San Diego reporter Steve Price.

But this project isn't just to help marine mammals. SeaWorld's senior veterinarian Todd Schmitt believes the research will also one day help people.

"In humans, with stroke, heart attack, organ transplants, asthma, there's a lot of clinical conditions that we think carbon monoxide may be therapeutic," Schmitt said.

For the researchers, SeaWorld is providing an environment that wouldn't be possible in the open ocean.

"It's currently impossible to get a blood sample or a breath sample from a large whale or dolphin in the wild," Tift said.

SeaWorld visitors got a chance to see the researchers in action Wednesday, and based on their reactions, there's nothing fishy about it.

"I found it more scientific than I was expecting. I was expecting a dog and pony show, and then once they got into the scientific level -- different gasses they're monitoring -- I'm a respiratory therapist, so I found it particularly interesting," visitor Don Garrard said.

Animals participating in the study include bottlenose dolphins, along with pilot, beluga, and orca whales.

"It's a win-win for our animals, for their medical care, their husbandry. It's a win-win for science and future development of scientific techniques that can be applied for humans and animals," Schmitt said.

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