As concern grows over the declining health of the world’s oceans, veterinary students at Mississippi State are learning how to rescue and rehabilitate vulnerable marine animals as part of a unique partnership between the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi.
For animals that live in the Mississippi Sound — home to one of the country’s largest coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins — the partnership in many cases has been a lifesaver. Students are learning about the plight of endangered species, such as Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and providing care for sick and stranded dolphins, turtles, sea lions and other aquatic animals.
Working with the IMMS is the primary faculty responsibility of Dr. Debra Moore, an assistant clinical professor for MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. After earning her DVM from Tuskegee University, Moore spent more than two decades researching marine species in Puerto Rico, where she co-founded the Caribbean Center for Marine Studies.
“For Mississippi State to have a program like this is huge,” Moore says. “The role MSU has with the IMMS is exposing veterinary students to learning and career opportunities they never would have gotten elsewhere. All of the professors who come here say, ‘I can’t believe that vet students are getting this. It’s wonderful!’”
One of the students was Dr. Kaylin McNulty, who completed a two-week externship with Moore before graduating from the MSU vet school in May 2019. McNulty was amazed by the new dimension of animal life she discovered as well as the many ways it could augment her pathology residency at MSU.
“After the externship, I knew I wanted to be more involved with the work they’re doing on the coast,” she says. “During my residency, I’ll be able to go to the IMMS at least once a month, because that’s how often they take vet students there. I’ll also get to participate in necropsies brought to the vet school that I can then use to teach students. As much as I love pathology, it was a great opportunity to do an externship with Dr. Moore and be able to continue working with the IMMS.”
During their rotations, MSU veterinary students participate in a variety of hands-on learning experiences with Moore and the IMMS staff. The Institute offers educational programs that are open to the public, including display aquariums, a marine park with dolphins and sea lions, and touch pools where people can swim with cownose rays, bamboo sharks and other friendly sea creatures. Students help feed, monitor and provide veterinary care for domestic and wild animals kept at the IMMS.
McNulty notes that a highlight of her externship was seeing how veterinarians use technology to diagnose injuries and diseases.
“Dolphins have issues with gastric ulcers, so they use gastroscopes to look into their stomachs,” she explains. “With stranded sea turtles and dolphins, they use ultrasound and radiography to look at lung pathology. If an animal has an upper respiratory issue, they can monitor to see if medications and treatments are working. They also can identify foreign bodies — one of the turtles had a fishhook stuck in its throat that they were able to find and then remove.”
Having access to MSU’s veterinary specialists and diagnostic equipment has been a game-changing advantage for the IMMS and its marine patients as well as MSU faculty. Teachers who specialize in internal medicine, pathology, ophthalmology and other fields are using their skills to expand their veterinary knowledge, improve treatment outcomes and collect research data to enhance marine medicine.
“I just make a phone call, and they say, ‘Debra, what can we do to help?’ It’s that level of specialization and teamwork that’s opening doors for these animals,” Moore says. “We’ve diagnosed cataracts and done gastroscopies on sea turtles and performed detailed gross examinations and necropsies to see what’s killing marine animals. The studies we’ve been able to do and the amount of material we can publish for the scientific community have been outstanding.”
One of the team’s specialists is Dr. Tim Morgan, a professor in the vet school’s Department of Pathobiology and Population Medicine. Not only has the partnership enabled him to incorporate marine animal pathology into the department’s curriculum, but it also has helped students and staff recognize a higher purpose in MSU’s work on the coast.
“Our partnership is creating opportunities for us to directly experience the world of marine animal medicine while instilling the vital importance of protecting the marine environment,” says Morgan. “Some students will likely dedicate their lives to caring for these amazing animals, but even those who don’t will be able to serve as ambassadors for the conservation of dolphins, sea turtles and all marine life that is so vital for our planet to protect.”
A grant awarded through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund helped expand collaborative efforts between the IMMS and MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In 2018, Moore became the first MSU faculty member to be located at the IMMS.
Moore didn’t grow up in Mississippi, but her childhood trips to Pascagoula to visit her grandparents awakened her curiosity about animals living beneath the opaque waves of the Mississippi Sound. Many of her most cherished memories involve fishing with her grandfather during family vacations.
“I loved it — I couldn’t wait to get down here and spend time on the beach,” she says. “Growing up, I noticed the water was not very clear. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the effect of the Mississippi River and the fact that it drains over 30 states and two Canadian provinces, which changes the color of our water. After I started studying oceanography and getting exposed to other marine environments, the special aspects of Mississippi’s coast became even more interesting.”
As recent history has proved, the same river that feeds the Gulf of Mexico is also capable of harming it. In addition to an incalculable amount of agricultural chemicals and pollutants, the Mississippi River periodically washes massive volumes of floodwaters into the Gulf. Giant influxes of freshwater combined with toxins have taken a toll not only on a fragile ecosystem but also on Mississippi’s robust seafood and tourism economies.
While challenges on the coast may seem overwhelming at times, MSU veterinary students are learning how their action and advocacy can make a difference. Through the IMMS-MSU partnership, students are being mentored to educate the public about the need to respect and protect ocean life that is all too often trapped on the front lines of environmental crises, both natural and man-made.