Funding for pioneering research on little known dolphins

October 11, 2012

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The Australian Marine Mammal Centre has awarded $567,000 in funding to Murdoch University for vital research on little known dolphin populations off Western Australia’s Kimberley coast.

Postdoctoral researcher Dr Josh Smith has received the three-year, $440,000 2012 Bill Dawbin Postdoctoral Fellowship for ‘Passive acoustic monitoring of coastal dolphins’, while the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU) has been given a separate $127,000 grant for ‘Snubfin and Humpback Dolphins in the Kimberley region, Western Australia’.

Both grants will support MUCRU’s research into Australian snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, listed as ‘near threatened’ at an international level.

“Australian snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins are of international conservation significance, partly because so little is known about them. They’re particularly vulnerable to local extinction, as their coastal distribution overlaps with areas of highest human use in the marine environment,” Dr Smith said.

“A lot of large-scale coastal developments associated with the oil, gas and mining industries are currently underway or proposed in the areas where they’re found, so we’re looking for a non-invasive and cost-effective method to monitor their distribution and abundance.”

Dr Smith and Curtin University’s Dr Christine Erbe are developing a method for conducting passive acoustic surveys of the dolphins. This technique involves using calibrated acoustic systems and automated computer algorithms to detect the dolphins’ high-frequency vocalisations, track their movements and identify habitat use.

Dr Smith said large gaps in knowledge of distribution and habitat use currently existed and that visual surveys were challenging and expensive due to the dolphins’ shallow, murky water habitat, small population sizes, fragmented distribution and cryptic behaviour.

“We hope to provide data that will inform assessments of the status of snubfin and humpback dolphins under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and parallel state legislation.”

The second grant will see MUCRU chief investigators Simon Allen and Associate Professor Lars Bejder work in collaboration with Dr Celine Frère (University of Exeter) and Professor Ken Pollock (North Carolina State University and MUCRU) on a project that will form the basis of Murdoch School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology student Alex Brown’s PhD.

A team led by Mr Brown will travel to several field sites across the Kimberley four times over the next two years to collect essential information about population abundance and local movements.

Part of the project involves obtaining tissue samples to analyse gene flow within and between study sites.

“Snubfin dolphins are unique to Australian waters. While humpback dolphins occur throughout the Indo-Pacific, there is strong genetic evidence to suggest that those found in Australian waters are a distinct species in their own right,” said Mr Allen.

Further information about these research projects, visit the MUCRU website.

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