A Dolphin’s Tail

She swims, eats, & plays almost like like any toddler her age.

Only difference is that Winter is a dolphin — without a tail…   for now.

Winter the dolphin

Several months ago, I wrote about a remarkable breakthrough for a dolphin in Japan named Fuji who had been fitted with the world’s first prosthetic flukes.   But last month, an even more noteworthy & ambitious project involving an artificial limb and a dolphin is underway.   Winter, an 18-month old female Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf in Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium will be the first dolphin in the world to be fitted with a full prosthetic tail.

Though similar to the case of Fuji, Winter lost not only her flukes but also the peduncle (a vital wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin’s tail to move up & down) after getting caught in the buoy line of a crab trap near Cape Canaveral when she was only 3 months old.   Despite her severe wounds, she had begun learning to swim and play without her tail.   But after she was was rescued and transported to the facility, veterinarians became concerned that her spine might also suffer damage in the long run if other options weren’t pursued.   One of the world’s leading prosthetists, Kevin Carroll, who travels the country tackling the toughest human amputation cases, was consulted to help craft a solution.   But Carroll, of Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc., hadn’t anticipated the magnitude of the challenge of designing a prosthetic for a dolphin:

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.   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.

Carroll is developing a prosthetic tail system for Winter that includes a gel sleeve that attaches via suction so that it won’t irritate her sensitive skin.   Although there are many months of work & training to go and it remains to be seen how successful the prosthetic will be over the long-term, those involved are very optimistic as she’s acclimating to the first pieces of the artificial limb quickly.   And the lessons learned with the high-tech artificial dolphin tail are paying off in advances in the prosthetics field for people too — already, at least one wounded serviceman back from Iraq has benefited from Carroll’s research for Winter’s project!

Follow this link to read USA Today’s coverage about Winter and her prosthetic tail.   And be sure to check out Winter the Dolphin’s video sponsored by a new Florida fashion portal website LivFashion.