Category Archives: DAP

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:



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:

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.


Oct 2015 – Epic endings and new beginnings: Summary of the Dolphin Alliance Project’s (Monkey Mia) field season

The 2015 field season was incredibly successful thanks largely to our amazing crew (Teresa Borcuch and Giulia Donati), without whom this success would not have been possible. In four months, we conducted hundreds of behavioural surveys across our entire study area and collected more than one hundred tissue samples.

We are sad to report that several dolphins, whom we have known for decades, have no longer been sighted in recent times. The most prominent among those missing is Real Notch, an old Red Cliff Bay male who had an impressive record spanning three decades – both when it comes to consortships and also paternities. He will be sorely missed, but will live on in our memories, in scientific papers and in legend!

Another loss this year was Nicky, one of the regular visitors to Monkey Mia beach. She was probably one of the most well-known and most frequently photographed wild dolphins in the world. Her disappearance in June, just short of 40 years of age, has made international headlines and thousands of people have expressed their condolences over social media. She left behind her two and a half year old calf, Missel. While we were hopeful at first, she was last sighted a couple weeks after Nicky’s disappearance and has, unfortunately, not been sighted again since.

The dolphin society is changing! Many of the male alliances who have dominated the eastern gulf in recent years are slowly disappearing, existing alliances are changing, and we have identified several potential new alliances, with young male dolphins who might take the old alliances’ place in the years to come. Only time and continued survey effort will tell if they succeed. The 2016 season is just around the corner and we aim to make it as successful as 2015 has been.

Sam and Team East


DAP season 3 DAP season 4 DAP season 2



Aug 2015 – Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em

3e Nicky 2005

One of the most famous of the Monkey Mia beach dolphins, Nicky (pictured above in 2005) died last month. She was just shy of her 40th birthday. Only a small percentage of dolphins in Shark Bay are lucky enough to live past 40 years of age. Nicky’s mother, Holey-fin, died this same month 20 years ago.

This video clip shows Nicky interacting with her first infant, Nipper, in 1988, when Nipper was just one year old. The interactions were filmed by Scott Crane, who was helping us out that year. Although the interaction appears very “cute”, with Nipper in “baby position” and nuzzling and rubbing against her mother, it reflects an infant trying to get attention from a mother who was more focused on the free fish available at Monkey Mia.

Nicky certainly wasn’t the best mother in the bay, and her only surviving offspring (pictured with her below as a youngster in 2012), now a juvenile, remains her only opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. 

4e Nicky and calf 2012

Her poor performance stands in stark contrast to other Monkey Mia females, like Puck and Surprise, who have been very successful and are now grandmothers. Nicky and Puck were born a year apart. Nicky was originally thought to be a male and was named Nick based on the large nick in her dorsal fin. Following the naming of Nick, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the inspiration for Puck. The dolphin versions of Nick and Puck could not have had more different personalities, but in ways different from the play! Nicky was quite aggressive, while Puck (whose daughter and granddolphin are pictured below in 2012) has always had a sweet, gentle disposition.

Puck's daughter and grandaughter

See also Richard’s posting at

17 Jun 2015 – The 2015 field season kicks off in Shark Bay!


The 2015 field season, with researchers Sam Wittwer and Teresa Borcuch on the Monkey Mia side (Dolphin Alliance Project) and Livia Gerber and Sonja Wild on the Useless Loop side (Dolphin Innovation Project), has been successfully kicked off.

Both teams (including PhD students, Masters students and volunteers from four different countries) will stay in the field until mid-October, collecting photo-identification, behavioural and genetic data. They’ll see oh-so-many dolphins, fascinating foraging and complex cooperation and competition… not to mention flying fish, sharks, rays, dugongs, turtles, birds, sea snakes, sun rises, sunsets and so on.

Interested in joining as a volunteer in future years? If so, please contact Michael, Richard or Simon.

May 2015 – New Publication in Animal Behaviour

ESBDolphin BB flank female

We are pleased to announce the publication of “Male dolphin alliances in Shark Bay: changing perspectives in a 30-year study” in Animal Behaviour

Authors: Richard Connor and Michael Krützen

Abstract: Bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops cf. aduncus, in Shark Bay, Western Australia exhibit the most complex alliances known outside of humans. Advances in our understanding of these alliances have occurred with expansions of our study area each decade. In the 1980s, we discovered that males cooperated in stable trios and pairs (first-order alliances) to herd individual oestrous females, and that two such alliances of four to six, sometimes related, individuals (second-order alliances) cooperated against other males in contests over females. The 1990s saw the discovery of a large 14-member second-order alliance whose members exhibited labile first-order alliance formation among nonrelatives. Partner preferences as well as a relationship between first-order alliance stability and consortship rate in this ‘super-alliance’ indicated differentiated relationships. The contrast between the super-alliance and the 1980s alliances suggested two alliance tactics. An expansion of the study area in the 2000s revealed a continuum of second-order alliance sizes in an open social network and no simple relationship between second-order alliance size and alliance stability, but generalized the relationship between first-order alliance stability and consortship rate within second-order alliances. Association preferences and contests involving three second-order alliances indicated the presence of third-order alliances. Second-order alliances may persist for 20 years with stability thwarted by gradual attrition, but underlying flexibility is indicated by observations of individuals joining other alliances, including old males joining young or old second-order alliances. The dolphin research has informed us on the evolution of complex social relationships and large brain evolution in mammals and the ecology of alliance formation. Variation in odontocete brain size and the large radiation of delphinids into a range of habitats holds great promise that further effort to describe their societies will be rewarded with similar advances in our understanding of these important issues.

You can access the article at:

Apr 2014 – Another publication in Proceedings of the Royal Society B

WSBDolphin Fajita with sponge 2

We are very pleased to announce the publication of “Cultural transmission of tool use by Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) provides access to a novel foraging niche” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Authors: Michael Krützen, Sina Kreicker, Colin D. MacLeod, Jennifer Learmonth, Anna M. Kopps, Pamela Walsham, and Simon J. Allen

Abstract: Culturally transmitted tool use has important ecological and evolutionary consequences and has been proposed as a significant driver of human evolution. Such evidence is still scarce in other animals. In cetaceans, tool use has been inferred using indirect evidence in one population of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.), where particular dolphins (‘spongers’) use marine sponges during foraging. To date, evidence of whether this foraging tactic actually provides access to novel food items is lacking. We used fatty acid (FA) signature analysis to identify dietary differences between spongers and non-spongers, analysing data from 11 spongers and 27 non-spongers from two different study sites. Both univariate and multivariate analyses revealed significant differences in FA profiles between spongers and non-spongers between and within study sites. Moreover, FA profiles differed significantly between spongers and non-spongers foraging within the same deep channel habitat, whereas the profiles of non-spongers from deep channel and shallow habitats at this site could not be distinguished. Our results indicate that sponge use by bottlenose dolphins is linked to significant differences in diet. It appears that cultural transmission of tool use in dolphins, as in humans, allows the exploitation of an otherwise unused niche.

Krützen M, Kreicker S, MacLeod CD, Learmonth J, Kopps AM, Walsham P, Allen SJ. 2014 Cultural transmission of tool use by Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) provides access to a novel foraging niche. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20140374.

Feb 2014 – New publication in Proceedings of the Royal Society B

WSBDolphin Liesa with#25305662

We are pleased to announce the publication of the new paper “Cultural transmission of tool use combined with habitat specialisations leads to fine-scale genetic structure in bottlenose dolphins” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Authors: Anna M. Kopps, Corinne Y. Ackermann, William B. Sherwin, Simon J. Allen, Lars Bejder and Michael Krützen

Abstract: Socially learned behaviours leading to genetic population structure have rarely been described outside humans. Here, we provide evidence of fine-scale genetic structure that has probably arisen based on socially transmitted behaviours in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) in western Shark Bay, Western Australia. We argue that vertical social transmission in different habitats has led to significant geographical genetic structure of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotypes. Dolphins with mtDNA haplotypes E or F are found predominantly in deep (more than 10 m) channel habitat, while dolphins with a third haplotype (H) are found predominantly in shallow habitat (less than 10 m), indicating a strong haplotype–habitat correlation. Some dolphins in the deep habitat engage in a foraging strategy using tools. These ‘sponging’ dolphins are members of one matriline, carrying haplotype E. This pattern is consistent with what had been demonstrated previously at another research site in Shark Bay, where vertical social transmission of sponging had been shown using multiple lines of evidence. Using an individual-based model, we found support that in western Shark Bay, socially transmitted specialisations may have led to the observed genetic structure. The reported genetic structure appears to present an example of cultural hitchhiking of mtDNA haplotypes on socially transmitted foraging strategies, suggesting that, as in humans, genetic structure can be shaped through cultural transmission.

Kopps AM, Ackermann CY, Sherwin WB, Allen SJ, Bejder L, Krützen M. 2014 Cultural transmission of tool use combined with habitat specialisations leads to fine-scale genetic structure in bottlenose dolphins. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20133245.