Skip to main content

How WEC Works: Krystan Wilkinson

Header photo: Recording data during dolphin health assessments. Credit Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

Krystan Wilkinson is a doctoral candidate in UF’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. She’s also a research assistant with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. Krystan is based in Sarasota, FL.


What are you doing for your PhD?

I study shark-dolphin interactions in Sarasota Bay. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program is a program of the Chicago Zoological Society and is based at Mote Marine Laboratory. It is the longest running study of a wild bottlenose dolphin population in the world. The SDRP has been studying the community of dolphins since 1970, and over that time they’ve documented injuries to the animals, whether natural or anthropogenic. One type of injury they’ve reported is shark bites, so I’m looking to see if there’s any spatial distribution of risk across habitats for the dolphins, how likely the dolphins are to survive after an incident with a shark predator, and if there are any behavioral changes exhibited by the dolphins — through either group dynamics or spatial use — after a shark bite. We can identify each individual dolphin in the community via nicks and notches on their dorsal fins; therefore, if we are able to estimate when a dolphin received a shark bite, we can look at an individual’s habitat use and grouping dynamics before and after the bite occurred.


Female bottlenose dolphin with fresh shark bite. Photo taken under NMFS Scientific Research Permit No. 522-1785. Credit Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program


When did you get into wildlife? Do you have an origin story?

When I was in 3rd grade I did a book report on Dr. Eugenie Clark, who founded Mote Marine Laboratory. She was a shark biologist, and ever since then I wanted to study sharks.

Most of my internships throughout college were with marine mammals and my interest in marine mammals grew throughout the years. My final internship was with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, where I work now. During my internship I spoke with my now co-advisor Randy Wells, the cofounder and director of the program, about pursuing graduate school. He’d always had an interest in shark-dolphin interactions, and it was the perfect marriage between my interests.

Is Dr. Clark still active at Mote Marine?

Unfortunately she passed away a few years ago. She was active up until the day she passed, she would still come into work. She was great.

I was going to ask if you’d ever gotten to meet her.

Yeah! I had lunch with her a few times. She signed my copy of her book (laughs).

What’s one word that describes how you work?

I would say multitasking, but I know that’s what Abby Powell said when you interviewed her!

Organized! I try to stay very well organized. I have a lot of different projects going on, so, if I can, I try to set aside a certain time of day to focus on each one. I have a constant running list of things to do.

Do you have a go-to tool that you use?

ArcGIS and R. My tools are mostly software programs. R is for statistics, and my mapping is all in ArcGIS.

What’s an unexpected experience that you’ve had because of your work?

Well, I also work with the spotted eagle ray program here at Mote, now called the Ray Conservation Program. We’ve just switched the name since expanding the program to include other species of rays. Because of this program, I’ve been able to travel to Cuba and Mexico to look into the status of spotted eagle ray populations throughout the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s not directly related to the shark-dolphin work, but it is something that I probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to do if I hadn’t been here. It is always a valuable experience learning from our research colleagues and their communities.

It’s a wonderful project to work with!

What was Cuba like?

We went to Havana and Cayo Largo. At Cayo Largo we spoke with dive tour operators to engage them in ecotourism discussions. We asked them if they were getting a lot of tourists looking for certain species, if spotted eagle rays were one of the species people were looking for, and if they would be willing to take photos or collect tourist photos of eagle rays so we could use them for photo ID.

Our Mexican colleagues have started a photo ID catalog, so we’re really interested in combining the databases between Mexico, Cuba, and Florida to see if we can determine any spotted eagle ray movement between the countries. We’re also following up with genetics and tagging research.


What did you like about living in Gainesville?

Well, I always split my time between Gainesville and Sarasota, so I didn’t really see much of Gainesville outside of the campus. Campus was beautiful! And I really liked The Top, a restaurant downtown.

It’s a college town, and I grew up in another college town: Madison, Wisconsin, so it’s like a little taste of home.

What’s your favorite animal you’ve worked with?

The eagle rays!

Spotted eagle ray pictured were released after measurements were taken. Credit Mote Marine Laboratory.

They’re so amazing. They really look like they’re flying through the water.

I like that there’s so little known about them, so you can really ask a lot of questions, from basic questions to some that are much more difficult to answer. I feel like I’m really contributing to the basic knowledge of that species.

They’re classified as “data deficient”, and there’s not a lot known about most ray species in general, so trying to bring awareness to their conservation needs is important.



I thoroughly enjoy everything I do with the sharks and dolphins, as well.

Tagging a female bull shark, nicknamed Miss Lillie, with an acoustic tag and a satellite-linked tag provided by The Nature Conservancy. Miss Lillie was safely released after tagging. Photo credit Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.

Bull sharks are the most likely predator to the Sarasota Bay dolphin community, and we’ve started a project in collaboration with the shark research program at Mote. We’re tagging adult bull sharks to look at their movements. We know a lot about what the dolphins do, but we really don’t know anything about their shark predators’ spatial movements and habitat use in Sarasota Bay.

Female bull shark that was acoustically tagged and released in April 2017. Photo credit Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.

I also assist with monthly dolphin surveys. I enjoy watching the various dolphin behaviors; they’re always doing something different and I’m always learning something new.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Serengeti Rules, by Sean B. Carol, and Deep Undercover, a nonfiction spy novel.

The Serengeti Rules is a really good book. It’s about how life works, and the rules and regulations of the natural world. It’s pretty interesting and well written.

In Closing

If you could go back in time to just before you went to college and give yourself advice, what would you tell yourself?

I think I followed my own advice, I guess, which is “Don’t say “no” to opportunities that come your way, because you don’t know where they will lead you.”

I did a variety of different internships throughout college, and they all led me in different directions, but it honed my skills and through that process I was able to learn what I really wanted to do.

First, I was an intern in an animal training department, because I really wanted to work with animals directly. It just seemed like the natural path to take.

I realized I didn’t want to do training, though, because I asked far too many questions for the trainers. They said, “You want to go into research.”

The following summer I did a rescue and rehabilitation internship. It was kind of a natural extension of training. I wasn’t training the animals, but I got to care for them and there were some research components included. We would experiment with different enrichment activities while the animals were being rehabilitated, and we looked at trends of stranding. I enjoyed that, but I decided I was still more interested in the research side of things.

Then I got a research internship with SDRP, and that was my niche.

So, to students now, I would say: if opportunities arise, even if you’re slightly unsure about them, take them. You can learn a lot about yourself and about a variety of subjects that way.

Taking photos during monthly dolphin population monitoring survey. Credit Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

Even if you don’t like what you do, at least you’ll know you don’t like that thing.

Right! I still thoroughly enjoyed training and rehabilitating animals, but I realized that I wanted to do research. Working with the animals was amazing though!. Sea lions were my favorite to work with during my animal training internship.


Yeah, they’re like dogs, and you can work with them in the water or out of the water and they were always pleased to see you.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

He’s retired now, but Franklin Percival. Also, Matt Burgess!

Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?

Do what you love and love what you do. That’s the key to happiness!


This interview by Rhett Barker, and lightly edited for clarity by Rhett Barker and Claire Williams.

Thanks to Krystan for speaking with us.

The concept for this interview is based on an interview series by the University of Washington called How UW Works, which is in turn based on a series called How I Workby LifeHacker magazine.