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A tail even a dolphin could love

Winter gets checked out by the developers of her prosthetic tail fluke, which might still be a year away.

Published April 23, 2007


CLEARWATER - It isn't a fluke.

It's a fake.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium unveiled a one-of-a-kind prosthetic fin Friday that could help the young dolphin Winter avoid developing a curvature of the spine which could put her in a permanent "bend" position. The female lost her own tail fluke in an accident in 2005.

While the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin swam around in her tank and hammed it up during a news conference, pieces of the artificial tail fin were on a table in a conference room nearby.

It's developer, Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics of Bethesda, Md., said he is still tinkering with the prosthetic, which is made of a silicone sleeve, a titanium joint and a hard rubber flipper.

Carroll's employer is donating staff time, efforts and materials for the device, which aquarium administrators estimate could cost more than $100,000.

Once it is finished a few months or a year from now, it probably will look a lot different than the prototype, Carroll said.

It is an immense science project. And those involved believe the results could benefit other marine mammals and animals as well as humans.

Aquarium CEO David Yates said the team assembled to help 18-month-old Winter are among the best specialists in the world.

They include Carroll, a top prosthetist and researcher who primarily works with human amputee patients; Dr. Michael T. Walsh, of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine marine mammal program; Stephen McCulloch, founder and executive director of the marine mammal research and conservation division of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution; and Dr. Juli Goldstein, a veterinarian and assistant research scientist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

Winter was tiny, thin and in pain two years ago when she was found off Cape Canaveral abandoned by her mother and tangled up in a rope attached to a crab trap. She was not expected to survive.

The injury damaged not only her flukes but also part of the peduncle, or tail shaft. Without flukes, she lacks her main propulsion. She can compensate, swimming side to side like a shark, but over time veterinarians expect problems to develop with her spinal cord.

With the device, "she's going to relearn how to swim," Walsh said.

Winter's caretakers, Diane Mitchell, the aquarium's director of animal care, Abby Stone, head trainer, and Ashley Riese, also a trainer, are key to the success of the project. They are slowly introducing the prosthetic to her, hoping she won't reject it.

They have already let her try on the soft, protective gel sleeve component of the device.

So far so good.

"She has an incredible spirit and a will to survive," McCulloch said.

He said he hopes Winter's story will be a cautionary tale to those who swim in the same waters in which sea creatures live, that they will be more careful with crab traps and fishing line.

After the news conference, Winter, who only weighs about 165 pounds, was lifted out of her tank.

Daniel Strzempka, a certified prosthetist who works for Hanger, performed a digital scan of her stump. The resulting 3-D image will help the Hanger team perfect the prosthetic, which will be held in place by suction technology.

Strzempka knows what Winter is going through. He lost one of his legs in a lawnmower accident when he was 4 and uses a high-tech artificial limb called a C-Leg with a microprocessor-controlled knee.

He used it to bend down and scan Winter who was lying on a mat.

"This will give us a working model to work with," Strzempka said. "It's like taking her stump home with us."

[Last modified April 23, 2007, 00:28:13]

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