Meet Dr. Randy Wells & Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

On the western coast of Florida lies the bustling city of Sarasota. Known for its beautiful white beaches, deep blue waters, and diverse ecosystem, Sarasota is a popular destination for many – dolphin scientists in particular.

The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), one of the Chicago Zoological Society’s renowned conservation programs, began in 1970 with Co-Founders Blair Irvine and Randall Wells. After more than 50 years, the SDRP is the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population.

Dr. Wells is not only the Director of the SDRP, but he is also the Vice President of Marine Mammal Conservation for the Chicago Zoological Society.

We are thrilled to share Dr. Wells’ insights into his role in the SDRP’s conservation work.

Randy Wells, director of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.


In the 1960s, Dr. Wells grew up with a passion for marine biology but found trouble pursuing this until his family moved from Peoria, Illinois, to Sarasota, Florida in 1969.

“Conservation wasn’t a commonly used word or one where there was a lot of direct activity,” Dr. Wells said. “I knew that I was interested in marine biology, and I wanted to study life in the oceans, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was a strong conservationist at that time because there weren’t many of those.”

During his high school years, Dr. Wells started working with dolphins after having moved to Sarasota.

“I was able to get involved in a local marine laboratory during my last year of high school as a work-study student,” Dr. Wells said.

He studied behavioral interactions of sharks and dolphins at the marine laboratory and began tagging wild dolphins as a volunteer assistant for Blair Irvine. The two shared similar interests in studying marine mammals - dolphins in particular.

Dr. Wells later received his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida in Tampa, his master’s at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and included studies of dolphins and whales in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

However, his passion for studying the lives of Sarasota’s dolphins kept calling him back. The opportunity to study a long-term resident community of readily identifiable individual dolphins of known sex, age, maternal lineages, health, ranging patterns and social associations is unparalleled.

“The idea that you can visit somewhere, identify dolphins, know that you can find them on a reliable basis, and work in a natural laboratory situation - that wasn’t possible anywhere else before,” Dr. Wells said.

In 1989, Dr. Wells joined CZS in the role of a Senior Conservation Scientist. He was encouraged by CZS to focus on studying many aspects of dolphin biology (i.e., their health, behavior, genetics, environmental change, and adverse interactions with humans).

“The major discoveries don’t come in as fast and as furious as they did when we knew so much less about the animals, but we are incrementally learning things of great importance to the animals,” Dr. Wells said. “It’s kind of like going out and unwrapping packages when you’re working with these animals. You see them, and they’re doing something new for the first time.

Sarasota Dolphin Research Program staff performing photographic identification survey.


Dr. Wells has many responsibilities in his roles with CZS.

“I oversee the day-to-day operations of the program and the staff of 12 people that work in Sarasota or remotely,” Dr. Wells said. “I help keep our programs going, manage the grants, and projects - that takes up most of my time.”

As the Vice President of Marine Mammal Conservation, his work has expanded to other continents to help with the conservation of marine mammals.

Since Sarasota is used as a model for training researchers from around the world, Dr. Wells participates in various panels frequently and consults with other researchers should a conservation issue arise.

“I don’t get out on the water as much as my staff does,” Dr. Wells said. “Much of what I do is sitting in front of a computer. But knowing that we are all working towards trying to improve the lives of these animals in the wild - in Sarasota and elsewhere - gives me a good feeling about the work no matter what the nature of the work may be at any given time.

Sarasota Dolphin Research Program staff (pictured left to right): Top row (tower): Jonathan Crossman, Dr. Katie McHugh; middle row: Kim Bassos-Hull, Aaron Barleycorn, Dr. Krystan Wilkinson; bottom row: Jason Allen, Dr. Randy Wells, Dr. Christina Toms, and interns Jessica Barrios, Leticia Magpali Estevão, and Amy Cabeceiras.


The SDRP team is proud to be recognized by the Walt Disney Company as a Disney Conservation Hero (2020).

The Disney Conservation Fund (DCF) recognizes the extraordinary work of conservation scientists around the world working to protect wildlife every year.

“It was great to receive the Conservation Award from Disney,” Dr. Wells said. “They’ve been tremendous supporters of us for many decades. Since they aren’t too far away, we get to interact with them on a fairly regular basis, and we very much enjoy doing that.

Local dolphins leaping in Sarasota Bay.


There are many great ways to support Dr. Wells’ work and the SDRP’s mission.

Of course, financial help is always welcome.

The best way to contribute to a better understanding of the structure and dynamics of dolphin, whale, and porpoise populations and the natural and human-induced factors that impact them is to support the Chicago Zoological Society!

As a non-profit organization, all proceeds support conservation efforts and programs like the SDRP. Direct, monetary donations are also greatly appreciated on the SDRP’s website.

However, how we interact with the environment also greatly impacts the lives of the hundreds of dolphins in the SDRP and beyond.

“Those in Illinois live 1,200 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico, but the drainage basin up there runs into the Gulf of Mexico,” Dr. Wells said. “So, what people do environmentally in Illinois affects the dolphins of the Gulf of Mexico. Even if the animals are not in your backyard, understand that you still have a great impact on their lives in a variety of ways.”

Lastly, what better way to help conservation efforts like the SDRP than to become a conservation scientist yourself! Dr. Wells offers a great piece of advice to those interested in a professional career in a similar field.

“During your college years, find a program that you might be interested in, serve as an intern, get to know that kind of work and the researchers, and determine that conservation research really is what you want to pursue,” Dr. Wells said.

Although dolphins are adorable, this career may not be for you.

“The romance of studying dolphins is replaced quite quickly by the realities of what it takes to actually study them,” Dr. Wells said. “There are long, hot hours out in the sun. You spend a few hours in the boat observing dolphins, compared to twice as many hours working in the lab, analyzing the data.”

Needless to say, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into a career as a dolphin conservation scientist. However, it is an incredibly rewarding experience, according to Dr. Wells.

“Some of the dolphins I met back in the 1970s,” Dr. Wells said. “Now, we’re observing them, their calves, their grandcalves, their great grandcalves, and their great-great grandcalves. We just documented a sixth-generation calf born! There’s so much more to learn - that keeps us going.”

To learn more about the SDRP, click here to visit their website.

Also, stay up to date on recent discoveries and achievements. Follow the program’s social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

- Written by Olivia Sabalaskey

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Posted: 7/28/2021 11:50:12 AM by Sean Keeley

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Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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