A MARINE biologist from Goonellabah is studying how dolphins have been affected by the US oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Kate Sprogis, who attended Kadina High School before studying for her degree at the University of Queensland, is on the scene helping with critical dolphin research.

The 24-year-old is working as an intern with Chicago Zoological Society's Sarasota Dolphin Research Program through the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.

She said the program was now in its 40th year and was the world's longest-running study of a wild dolphin population.

Directed by Dr Randall Wells, in collaboration with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the researchers are trying to find out what impacts the BP oil spill has had on inshore bottlenose dolphins.

“Dolphins may be exposed to contaminants through a number of ways,” Ms Sprogis said.

“Direct contact with oil, for example, can cause dermal injury.

“Inhalation could result in central nervous system and pulmonary damage.

“Furthermore, ingestion may result in internal damage to the kidneys and liver, and even reproductive failure.”

So far more than 50 dolphins have become stranded on the northern Gulf beaches.

Ms Sprogis said this was higher than average.

She is currently working with SDRP staff members Brian Balmer and Jason Allen, out of Port St Joe in Florida.

This was where dolphins were likely to be exposed to the oil, she said.

Nearby St Joseph Bay has a bottlenose dolphin population of around 100, but there are also transient dolphins from oceanic Gulf waters.

The research team will look at the abundance of dolphins, the number of calves and survival rates.

“In addition, through the collection of small skin and blubber samp-les the hormone levels, genetics and contaminant exposure will be examined,” Ms Sprogis said. She is due to leave Florida next month.

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