Safe and effective echocardiography would represent a valuable tool for marine mammal veterinarians and physiologists evaluating the dolphin heart. Unfortunately, conventional ultrasound technology (transthoracic echocardiography) has been limited by logistic, anatomic, and behavioral challenges. Five mature male Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were trained for echocardiographic imaging (four for both transthoracic and transesophageal imaging, and one for only transthoracic imaging). It was noted that transesophageal image quality transiently improved when the dolphins spontaneously exhaled. Subsequently, dolphins were conditioned to hold their breath following forced exhalation, and imaging proceeded during such behavioral breath holds. Over 25 transthoracic and 100 transesophageal echocardiographic studies were performed, including both two-dimensional imaging and color flow mapping. Transthoracic imaging yielded poor-quality images of only small portions of the heart. In contrast, transesophageal imaging, which improved dramatically with behavioral breath holding following exhalation, yielded consistently high-quality images of the entire heart (mitral, tricuspid, aortic, and pulmonary valves, atrial and ventricular septa, left and right atria, left and right ventricles, and ascending aorta and main pulmonary artery). Color flow mapping demonstrated mild tricuspid regurgitation in all dolphins, and mild aortic regurgitation in one dolphin found to have a pedunculated mass arising from the sinutubular junction just above the aortic valve. There were no complications in nonsedated dolphins. The heart of the bottlenose dolphin can be safely, effectively, and reproducibly evaluated with the use of transesophageal echocardiography in conjunction with behavioral breath holding following forced exhalation. This approach, and the normative echocardiographic data generated from this work, lays the foundation for future echocardiographic studies of cetaceans.
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Vol. 37 • No. 4