Feature image: This tiny calf of “Sunny”, a sponging mother dolphin in Shark Bay, did not make it to one year of age in the hard times following a marine heatwave.
Blurb: The remote and beautiful Shark Bay World Heritage Area (and marine park) got itself into some hot water in the summer of 2011. Various negative impacts across trophic levels followed this unprecedented marine heat wave, exacerbated by some anomalous flooding events, including the loss of habitat-forming seagrass meadows, crashes in invertebrate and fish populations, as well declines in marine turtle health.
For a little not-so-light reading, check out these prior papers by our friends and colleagues: Thomson et al. (2015). Extreme temperatures, foundation species, and abrupt ecosystem change: an example from an iconic seagrass ecosystem. Global Change Biology 21:1463–1474. And: Arias-Ortiz et al. (2018). A marine heatwave drives massive losses from the world’s largest seagrass carbon stocks. Nature Climate Change 8: 338–344.
Piccolo, daughter of Puck, is a famous Shark Bay dolphin. Here, she works hard to round up a bream in the shallows of Monkey Mia beach.
Highlights:This should probably read “lowlights” but, in this paper, we used our long-term demographic data to report on the subsequent (arguably cascading) effects of habitat degradation on the survival and reproduction of the iconic bottlenose dolphin population that inhabits this globally unique ecosystem.
Title: Long-term decline in survival and reproduction of dolphins following a marine heatwave.
Authors: Sonja Wild, Michael Krützen, Robert W Rankin, Will JE Hoppitt, Livia Gerber, Simon J Allen.
Abstract: It’s a two-page correspondence piece, so there isn’t really an abstract per se, but here is the first paragraph, a pseudo-abstract of sorts: One of many challenges in the conservation of biodiversity is the recent trend in the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events. The Shark Bay World Heritage Area, Western Australia, endured an unprecedented marine heatwave in 2011. Catastrophic losses of habitat-forming seagrass meadows followed, along with mass mortalities of invertebrate and fish communities. Our long-term demographic data on Shark Bay’s resident Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) population revealed a significant decline in female reproductive rates following the heatwave. Moreover, capture–recapture analyses indicated 5.9% and 12.2% post heatwave declines in the survival of dolphins that use tools to forage and those that do not, respectively. This implies that the tool-using dolphins may have been somewhat buffered against the cascading effects of habitat loss following the heatwave by having access to a less severely affected foraging niche. Overall, however, lower survival has persisted post-heatwave, suggesting that habitat loss following extreme weather events may have prolonged, negative impacts on even behaviourally flexible, higher-trophic level predators.
Oakley and calf cruise over the seagrass and sand in western Shark Bay.
Full citation: Wild S, Krützen M, Rankin RW, Hoppitt WJE, Gerber L and Allen SJ. 2019. Long-term decline in survival and reproduction of dolphins following a marine heatwave. Current Biology 29: R1-R2. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.02.047
Funding and acknowledgements: This research was funded by grants from the Swiss Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, Sea World Research and Rescue Foundation, WV Scott Foundation and the AH Schultz Stiftung. We thank Mitsui, Shark Bay Resources, and the Useless Loop community for in-kind support, and field assistants for contributions to data collection. This research was conducted with scientific investigation permits from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, as well as animal ethics approvals from the University of Zurich, University of Western Australia, Murdoch University and the University of New South Wales.
An alliance of males follows the foraging female in western Shark Bay. We hope we are not consigned to documenting the demise of the remarkable wildlife population.
Watch this space for more research findings in the coming months…