Category Archives: DAP

Jun 2018 – New publication on signature whistles in male alliances

The Dolphin Alliance Project and colleagues are pleased to announce the publication of our recent work on communication in Shark Bay’s “teams of rivals”, the male alliances…

Citation: King SL, Friedman W, Allen SJ, Gerber L, Jensen F, Wittwer S, Connor RC, Krützen M 2018. Bottlenose dolphins retain individual vocal labels in multi-level alliances. Current Biology https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.05.013.

Field methods at a glance: A trio of dolphins forages in the shallows near Peron Peninsula. The research team confirms their identities with photo-identification, records their vocalisations with a four-hydrophone array and obtains aerial video with either a helikite- or a drone-mounted HD video camera (photo: Simon J Allen).

Summary: Cooperation between allied individuals and groups is ubiquitous in human societies, and vocal communication is known to play a key role in facilitating such complex human behaviours. In fact, complex communication may be a feature of the kind of social cognition required for the formation of social alliances, facilitating both partner choice and the execution of coordinated behaviours. As such, a compelling avenue for investigation is what role flexible communication systems play in the formation and maintenance of cooperative partnerships in other alliance-forming animals. Male bottlenose dolphins in some populations form complex multi-level alliances, where individuals cooperate in the pursuit and defense of an important resource: access to females. These strong relationships can last for decades and are critical to each male’s reproductive success. Convergent vocal accommodation is used to signal social proximity to a partner or social group in many taxa, and it has long been thought that allied male dolphins also converge onto a shared signal to broadcast alliance identity. Here, we combine a decade of data on social interactions with dyadic relatedness estimates to show that male dolphins that form multi-level alliances in an open social network retain individual vocal labels that are distinct from those of their allies. Our results differ from earlier reports of signature whistle convergence among males that form stable alliance pairs. Instead, they suggest that individual vocal labels play a central role in the maintenance of differentiated relationships within complex nested alliances. 

Figure 1 from the paper deftly illustrates the strength of social bonds between first- and second-order alliance partners, while the spectrograms display the whistle contours of each individual male dolphin (King et al. 2018). Note the differences between contours relative to the strength of particular social bonds.

Media: There was some very nice coverage from funders National Geographic (which you can view at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/06/dolphins-animals-courtship-friends/#), a great summary appeared in The Conversation (http://theconversation.com/male-dolphins-use-their-individual-names-to-build-a-complex-social-network-97780) and, 48 hours later, it’s pretty much everywhere!

BUBBLES! Are you talkin’ to me!? (photo: Simon J Allen)
Acknowledgements: Stephanie is a Branco Weiss Fellowship—Society in Science Fellow. Stephanie, Richard and Whitney received grants from the National Geographic Society. The study was also supported by a Swiss National Science Foundation grant to Michael. Whitney was supported by a Graduate Fellowship in Anthropogeny from the University of California, San Diego. Frants was supported by the US Office of Naval Research and a fellowship from the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Aarhus University. Permits for the scientific use of animals were obtained from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), Western Australia. The University of Zurich and University of Western Australia granted animal ethics approvals. The authors thank RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, Monkey Mia Wildsights, and the DBCA’s Shark Bay Rangers, all field assistants and our human judges for their help during this study. Lastly, we grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on the manuscript.
Stay tuned for some more exciting findings in the next few months.

Jan 2018 – The papers and presentations of 2017

Happy 2018! Time for a quick update: The last year has been a productive one for the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance (SBDRA), with successful field seasons in both eastern (#36!) and western (#11) gulfs, a solid showing at the 22nd Biennial Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a number of papers published.

With field seasons wrapped up, we went on our way to Canada for the conference. Quite a few of us shared flights with other members of the group, plus colleagues from other labs. In various airports, we’d find the time to catch up and talk marine mammal science… oh wait. No, we wouldn’t. We’d just stare at our mobile devices…

 

 

Members of the SBDRA gave eight oral presentations and one poster presentation…

 

We also had a lovely ‘Friends of Shark Bay’ dinner for a gaggle of researchers past, present and future…

 

Amongst a few others, we published a paper on male alliance behaviour and mating access in the open social network of Shark Bay’s bottlenose dolphins (http://www.nature.com/articles/srep46354) in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

 

Also in Scientific Reports, another on sexual displays involving posturing and sponge presentation by male Australian humpback dolphins across north-western Australia (http://rdcu.be/w3tL).

 

There are so many intriguing parallels in behaviour and social complexity that exist between some of the cetacea and the great apes, but who would have thought that one charismatic, tool-using species might remain undiscovered until late 2017!? Congrats to Michael and colleagues on this wonderful result: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31245-9.

 

2018 is shaping up to be a bumper year for papers and fieldwork. We look forward to sharing it with you, so stay tuned…

Sep 2017 – PhD research with the Dolphin Alliance Project

The Dolphin Alliance Project is seeking high calibre students for two PhD projects to start in 2018. The first project will use acoustic, behavioural and genetic data to investigate the ontogeny of alliance formation in the Shark Bay dolphin population, focussing on juvenile and adult dolphins. The second project will explore how ecology, particularly the acoustic properties of the environment, contributes to variation in alliance behaviour and mating success in this remarkable population.

The students will be based at the University of Western Australia (UWA) under the supervision of Dr Stephanie King (UWA), and will be co-supervised by Professor Michael Krützen (University of Zürich), Professor Richard Connor (UMass Dartmouth) and Dr Simon Allen (UWA). Students will work in a dynamic research environment with access to a behavioural and demographic database spanning 30+ years, biopsy samples from 700+ individuals, and acoustic data from 15 well-documented alliances.

Applications are open to both domestic and international students, who should be eligible for an RTP scholarship: http://www.science.uwa.edu.au/future-students/scholarships.

Exceptional students are encouraged to apply for the Dean’s Excellence in Science PhD Scholarships: http://www.science.uwa.edu.au/future-students/scholarships/deans-excellence, as well as the Keiran McNamara World Heritage PhD Top-Up Scholarship: http://www.scholarships.uwa.edu.au/search?sc_view=1&id=5521&all=1&page=27.

General requirements include a background in evolutionary and behavioural biology, a BSc (Hons) or MSc degree (first class) in a relevant discipline, and fieldwork experience (preferably with marine mammals and/or primates). Knowledge or experience in bio-acoustics and/or small boat handling skills would be advantageous.

Ideal candidates will have strong oral and written communication skills and the ability to work and share ideas in a highly collaborative setting. International students, in particular, should have at least one peer-reviewed publication.

Applicants should send an expression of interest and CV, including the contact details of two academic referees, to Dr Stephanie King (stephanie.king@uwa.edu.au) by 7th October 2017.

Successful candidates will be informed prior to the 21st October to ensure scholarship applications are submitted prior to the 31st October deadline.

July 2017 – Field seasons start (and the Dolphin Alliance Project turns 35!)

The Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance field teams have now been back on the water for a month or so in Western Oz. This surely makes it time for a pictorial update of the first successes in pursuit of data on dolphins.

 

First things first, having kicked off in 1982, the Dolphin Alliance Project turns a healthy and productive 35 years old this season. Happy 36th field season DAP!

 

When packing for the field, there were a couple of team mascots a little concerned about whether or not they were joining us…

 

Indeed this day of departure image was no set-up – the door was left open and we came out to the project ute to find these rascals staking their claim…

 

One team went East (to Monkey Mia) with the hounds, while the other went West (to Useless Loop) with new team members and a recently serviced ‘Squidward’…

 

The Dolphin Alliance Project got amongst the action early, with popping males and foraging females on a glassy morning out…

 

The Dolphin Innovation Project got sampling on some glassy evenings in Useless Inlet…

 

And while Sonja did all the work driving and retrieving boats, Nahiid got busy with some serious shell photography (what a trooper!)…

 

Ol’ Bytfluke, the sponging grandmother, chasing brunch in a channel off Monkey Mia…

 

A trio of adult males from the 2nd-order alliance, the ‘Kroker Spaniels’, snagging near the pearl farm in Red Cliff Bay…

 

More of Stephanie’s acoustic targets, some of the ‘Hooligans’ alliance snagging in Whale Bight…

 

A beautiful young lady, Dokley, bow-riding in the shallows off Useless Loop…

 

Here is the delightful sponger Daiquiri in the Denham Channel, 2007…

 

And here she is, same fin, same old shark bite, same behaviour, same place, 2017…

 

Everyone’s favourite, the little boat-friendly Kimo in Useless Inlet…

 

And Kimo making photo-ID easy…

 

For those champing at the bit for an update on Osmo, the King of the Inlet, who lost his dorsal fin in a big fight over a female in 2016…

 

Here he is in 2017, looking cool, calm and healed…

 

And speaking of legends, here is the ‘Silver Bullet’ towing ‘Spongebob’ in the inaugural Dolphin Innovation Project season, 2007…

 

The end of an era, the last time the Bullet is used to launch the Bob before being handed over to a new owner (no, Silver Bullet has NOT crossed the rainbow bridge just yet)…

 

Of course, being in Shark Bay means some pretty sunsets. Sometimes it is important to ignore the rule of thirds…

 

Sunsets AND dolphins…

 

AGAIN!

 

In case people are getting bored with dolphins and sunsets, here are some BUDGIES!

 

For the picky/pedantic/thorough folk out there: photo credits go to the likes of Stephanie King, Nahiid Stephens, Sonja Wild and I of the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance (Dolphin Alliance Project and Dolphin Innovation Project); image collection and other sampling/research was carried out under permit from WA Dept of Parks and Wildlife; and no doggies, dolphins or budgies were harmed in the making of this blog.

Apr 2017 – New paper on alliances published in Nature’s Scientific Reports

 

Title: Male alliance behaviour and mating access varies with habitat in a dolphin social network

Authors: Richard C. Connor, William R. Cioffi, Srđan Randić , Simon J. Allen, Jana Watson-Capps & Michael Krützen

Highlights: We discovered that male dolphin alliance behaviour varies systematically along the Peron Peninsula in the World Heritage Listed Shark Bay, Western Australia. It is rare to find such variation in a single population of mammals, and indeed even more so in a single social network. This exciting discovery was made by pure serendipity, as often happens in science. We set out to work on a completely different issue, and discovered this!

Abstract: Within-species variation in social structure has attracted interest recently because of the potential to explore phenotypic plasticity and, specifically, how demographic and ecological variation influence social structure. Populations of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) vary in male alliance formation, from no alliances to simple pairs to, in Shark Bay, Western Australia, the most complex nested alliances known outside of humans. Examination of ecological contributions to this variation is complicated by differences among populations in other potentially explanatory traits, such as phylogenetic distance, as well as female reproductive schedules, sexual size dimorphism, and body size. Here, we report our discovery of systematic spatial variation in alliance structure, seasonal movements and access to mates within a single continuous social network in the Shark Bay population. Participation in male trios (versus pairs), the sizes of seasonal range shifts and consortship rates all decrease from north to south along the 50 km length of the study area. The southern habitat, characterised by shallow banks and channels, may be marginal relative to the open northern habitat. The discovery of variation in alliance behaviour along a spatial axis within a single population is unprecedented and demonstrates that alliance complexity has an ecological component.

 

2 Figure 1

Figure 1: The study site in waters off the east side of Peron Peninsula, which bisects Shark Bay, Western Australia. Centroids for seven northern 2nd-order alliances, which occupy relatively open habitat, are shown divided from the five southern 2nd-order alliances, which occupy habitat subdivided by shallow banks and channels.

 

3 Figure 2

Figure 2: The proportion of trios (triangles), consortship rate (circles), and adjusted consortship rate (squares) in 2nd-order alliances decreases in a SE direction across the study area/two habitats. Fitted logistic curves are shown from generalized linear models. prop. trios = proportion trios, CR = consortship rate.

Citation: Connor, R.C. et al. 2017 Male alliance behaviour and mating access varies with habitat in a dolphin social network. Sci. Rep. 7, 46354; doi: 10.1038/srep46354.

Link: http://www.nature.com/articles/srep46354

Acknowledgements: This study was supported by grants from the Australian Research Council (A19701144 and DP0346313), The Eppley Foundation for Research, The Seaworld Research and Rescue Foundation, The W. V. Scott Foundation, The National Geographical Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration and NSF (1316800). Accommodation was very generously provided by the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort. Permits for the scientific use of animals were obtained from the West Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife. The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth approved this study. Many generous people helped make this project possible. Landsat 7 ETM+ imagery of Shark Bay courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Nov 2016 – Piccolo’s piscatorial penchant

In 2005, Piccolo (the dolphin) brought the people (who normally feed her) at Monkey Mia a sizeable pink snapper. Despite having it handed back to her by rangers, she insisted. Pay-back for years of free hand-outs?

1

Fast forward to 2016 and she still has some adept foraging skills. As for the hapless snapper, ever get the feeling you’re being watched?:

3

A little burst of acceleration and some hydroplaning:

4

She pivots… the jaws of death await… a near miss:

5

 

At this point, it still seems reasonably fair… the fish has a chance of escape in the shallows, right?:

6

Aargh! 150 kg grey torpedo armed with tens of teeth out there and the mighty winged shadow of death with a huge beak in here? Utterly unfair:

7

Piccolo at risk of losing her well-rounded (up) meal… Flee fishy! …an even nearer miss:

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…but… game over. Piccolo 1: Pelican 0: Pisces -1:

10

 

 

June 2016 – Six field biologists, five weeks through (a four-month field season), three opportunistic acoustic follows, two shelling dolphins… and a new calf for sponging Sunny…

This is more quick-photo-update than information-loaded-blog, but suffice to say that the weather has not been particularly predictable. We have concluded, based on a respectable sample size, that working for the Bureau of Meteorology (or indeed holding down any sort of weather predicting job) is clearly one of the best jobs in the world, since one can be completely wrong on a day to day basis, yet still get paid!

Enough of the whining though: we have exploited the good hours to the fullest, more team members arrived (now Stephanie, Sonja, Helen, Simon, Livia and Michael – so we could double the efforts with two teams on the water), and the data is rolling in: photo-ID surveys up over 150 already, into the double figures for focal follows (most with acoustic recordings and some helikite-cam footage), and the team and equipment functioning supremely well. We’ve said goodbye to Michael (too soon), but will have Sam on-site shortly (not soon enough!).

Following is a little photo story of the past few weeks. Disclaimer: Obviously the selection is somewhat biased toward when we’ve had smooth seas. We’re assuming no one is particularly interested in seeing whitecaps in the channel, fog and rain, or us tapping away in the office.

Featured image: A trio of allied males ‘snagging’ in the channel;

1. The kind of morning that holds considerable promise;

1 Sunrise

2. Humphrey the Wonder Spaniel assists with setting up the helikite and hydrophones;

2 Team

3. The team survey ‘KAN’ the dolphin in the shallows north of the salt loader;

3 Team

4. ‘JUL’, the occasionally shelling ol’ fella, up on the flats;

4 Julian

5. The team on a five hour focal follow in magic conditions;

5 Team

6. The team north of Heirisson and Bellefin Prongs following bad-boy ‘Kah-NUUUt’;

6 Team

7. ‘RAD’, the sea grass and the salt;

7 Radar and the salt

8. <sigh> ‘RAD’ in the Shark Bay aquarium… only better, because the only walls are those in RAD’s imagination;

8 Radar in the Shark Bay aquarium

9. Sublime sunset after a few epic days on the bay;

9 Sunset

10. Sometimes too much kit is never enough (but we do have several gulfs to cover!);

10 Kit

11.  Some channel boys and the Useless Loop salt mountain;

11 Dolphins and salt

12. The gorgeous ‘SUN’, foraging with a sponge and keeping her 3-day-old newborn close;

12 Sunny and Cloudy

Onward into June (if it could please stop raining).

May 2016 – New publication in Molecular Ecology

Hot on the heels of our recent publication in Frontiers (see: Rankin R, Nicholson K, Allen S, Krützen M, Bejder L, Pollock K (2016). A full-capture Hierarchical Bayesian model of Pollock’s closed robust design and application to dolphins. Frontiers in Marine Science 3: 25. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2016.00025), we are very pleased to announce the publication (online early view) of our most recent paper in Molecular Ecology:

Title: Genetic isolation between coastal and fishery-impacted, offshore bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops spp.) populations.

Authors: Simon Allen, Kate Bryant, Robert Kraus, Neil Loneragan, Anna Kopps, Alex Brown, Livia Gerber and Michael Krützen.

Abstract: The identification of species and population boundaries is important in both evolutionary and conservation biology. In recent years, new population genetic and computational methods for estimating population parameters and testing hypotheses in a quantitative manner have emerged. Using a Bayesian framework and a quantitative model-testing approach, we evaluated the species status and genetic connectedness of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops spp.) populations off remote northwestern Australia, with a focus on pelagic ‘offshore’ dolphins subject to incidental capture in a trawl fishery. We analysed 71 dolphin samples from three sites beyond the 50 m depth contour (the inshore boundary of the fishery) and up to 170 km offshore, including incidentally caught and free-ranging individuals associating with trawl vessels, and 273 dolphins sampled at 12 coastal sites inshore of the 50 m depth contour and within 10 km of the coast. Results from 19 nuclear microsatellite markers showed significant population structure between dolphins from within the fishery and coastal sites, but also among dolphins from coastal sites, identifying three coastal populations. Moreover, we found no current or historic gene flow into the offshore population in the region of the fishery, indicating a complete lack of recruitment from coastal sites. Mitochondrial DNA corroborated our findings of genetic isolation between dolphins from the offshore population and coastal sites. Most offshore individuals formed a monophyletic clade with common bottlenose dolphins (T. truncatus), while all 273 individuals sampled coastally formed a well-supported clade of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (T. aduncus). By including a quantitative modelling approach, our study explicitly took evolutionary processes into account for informing the conservation and management of protected species. As such, it may serve as a template for other, similarly inaccessible study populations.

The full citation is Allen SJ, Bryant K, Kraus R, Loneragan N, Kopps A, Brown A, Gerber L, Krützen M (2016). Genetic isolation between coastal and fishery-impacted, offshore bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops spp.) populations. Molecular Ecology doi: 10.1111/mec.13622

You can find the paper at URL: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mec.13622/full

 

 

Feb 2016 – Natural born killers!? …or just another big, smart, social mammal?

Happy 2016!
The BBC website recently published an article that discusses some of our research. It’s quite a nice article, even if the title is a little over the top (the author did a great job, but did not select the title!). It should not surprise us that an animal that is so intelligent engages in some violent behaviour – something Shark Bay’s dolphins do in incredibly complex alliances; we only have to look in the mirror for that.

See also Richard’s post on the Dolphin Alliance’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/dolphinallianceproject/?fref=ts

Dec 2015 – The Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance at the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in San Francisco

The Dolphin Innovation Project and Dolphin Alliance Project were well represented at the recent biennial conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy held in beautiful San Francisco, California. Richard gave a presentation on yet another fascinating finding from the long-running research into male alliances, and special congrats go to PhD students Whitney and Sonja, who gave their first international conference presentations. Stephanie’s earlier research on signature whistles in dolphins also got covered in Professor Peter Tyack’s plenary talk.

Following are the presentation titles and authors (Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance members in bold and those who presented underlined). As well as these four(*) presentations specifically by members of the SBDRA, we contributed to numerous other posters, speed talks and full presentations by our friends, colleagues and associates at other labs/research groups:

 

*1. “Consortship rate and alliance structure vary with habitat in a large bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops cf. aduncus) social network.” Talk by Richard Connor, William Cioffi, Srdan Randic, Jana Watson-Capps, Simon Allen, William Sherwin and Michael Krützen

*2. “Social complexity among bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus): Dynamic third-order relationships and processes of mediation.” Talk by Whitney Friedman, Richard Connor, Michael Krützen and Edwin Hutchins

*3. “Female dolphins who are heterozygous for MHC do not produce more offspring, but their offspring are more viable.” Talk by Oliver Manlik, Janet Mann, Michael Krützen, Anna M Kopps, Holly C Smith, Kate R Sprogis, Lars Bejder; Simon Allen, Richard C Connor, William B Sherwin.

*4. “Shelling out for dinner: Evidence for horizontal social transmission of a remarkable foraging strategy in a wild dolphin population.” Poster by Sonja Wild, William JE Hoppitt, Simon J Allen and Michael Krützen

 

5. “Estimating the proportion of unmarked individuals in delphinid populations”. Poster by Krista Nicholson, Michael Krützen, Simon J Allen and Kenneth H Pollock

6. “Sexual dimorphism and geographic variation in dorsal fin features of Australian humpback dolphins.” Poster by Alexander M Brown, Lars Bejder, Guido J Parra, Daniele Cagnazzi, Tim Hunt, Jennifer L Smith and Simon J Allen

7. “Bite me: Inferring predation risk from the prevalence of shark bites among three tropical inshore dolphin species in north-western Australia.” Poster by Felix Smith, Simon J Allen, Lars Bejder and Alexander M Brown

8. “Australian humpback dolphins (Sousa sahulensis) of the North West Cape, Western Australia: An important habitat toward the south western limit of their range” Speed talk by Tim Hunt, Lars Bejder, Simon J Allen and Guido J Parra

9. “Introducing the Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis): Biology and status of the World’s ‘newest’ dolphin species.” Poster by Thomas A Jefferson, Guido J Parra, Simon J Allen, Isabel Beasley, Alex Brown, Daniele Cagnazzi, Tim Hunt and Carol Palmer

We look forward to presenting more of our research and catching up with friends and colleagues in Halifax for the 2017 conference.