A first for research as social cliques discovered amongst adult females dolphins

February 29, 2016

A female dolphin and her calf

A dolphin mother and her calf

Ongoing research of a dolphin population in south-western Australia has revealed for the first time, a unique cycle in social bonds between adult female bottlenose dolphins, which is leading to informed conservation for the animals.

Dr Holly Raudino made the discovery whilst completing her PhD with the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU). Dr Raudino’s study recently published in Animal Conservation, focused on estimating abundance, distribution and ranging patterns of Bunbury dolphin population.

“Female dolphin distribution, sociality and calving are predictable in time and space and align in summer months,” said Dr Raudino from the Dept. of Parks and Wildlife.

“While females may have more potential associates to choose from during peak periods; they retain associations seasonally with the same females over years.

“Although cyclic association patterns have been documented in primates, this is the first time that such patterns have been documented for any cetacean species.”

Research into the dolphins of Bunbury is the major objective of the South West Marine Research Program (SWMRP), an initiative led by the MUCRU and the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre, which focuses on the long-term viability of the bottlenose dolphin population off Bunbury.

Bunbury has a large recreational boating community, with vessel activity increasing substantially during the warmer months. MUCRU researchers have identified this period as high conservation value for female dolphins and their calves.

“Social relationships influence fitness, survival and reproduction. We found the timing of peak female sociality and use of the inner waters coincided with the majority of calving,” continued Dr Raudino.

MUCRU leader Professor Lars Bejder said the study was a great example of data obtained by the SWMRP consortium being used to inform management on the implementation of conservation areas.

“Following our recommendations and with the support of the Bunbury Dolphin Centre, the Department of Transport went in and made legislation of no-go area of protection in the region,” said Professor Bejder.

The SWMRP has been ongoing for nearly a decade and has yielded valuable information into the dolphin populations. It is providing critical information for assessing the potential impacts of human activity on dolphins, assisting industry partners in planning their activities in the marine environment, while minimising their impacts on the local dolphin population.

“When protecting long-lived, socially complex species, we suggest that key behavioural processes for conservation be extended to incorporate social dynamics,” added Dr Raudino.

“As such, we encourage management actions that mimimise impacts on dolphin sociality be implemented.”

Dr Raudino said that year-round monitoring was essential in detecting spatio-temporal patterns and recommends the need to increase the size of conservation areas.

The Bunbury dolphin ecotourism industry sees up to 115,000 people attracted to the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre each year, generating in excess of $8 million a year for the regional community.

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