The famous dolphins of Shark Bay, Western Australia, have been studied since the early 1980s. Almost 40 years of scientific research into one of the world’s most fascinating animal populations has provided insight into their behaviour, social structure, genetics, communication and ecology, including the daily challenges they face to find mates and food, and to avoid enemies and predators. Shark Bay is a busy place for a dolphin, packed with friends and foes, collaborators and competitors. Vast seagrass meadows provide forage for turtles and dugongs, and a nursery for fish; shallow sand flats and mangroves are home to invertebrates, rays and small sharks; deeper channels support sponge gardens and rocky reefs, providing hunting grounds for sea snakes, large sharks and, of course, dolphins.
With this myriad of niches to exploit, but so much competition for food and mating opportunities, we find a population of dolphins with incredibly complex social lives and an intriguing repertoire of foraging specialisations, including two forms of tool use. Alas, this globally unique ecosystem is vulnerable to the pressures associated with climate change.