Jan 2017 – The Dolphin Innovation Project turns 10 (or ‘Not-so-Useless Loop 2007-2016’)!

1 Cover

The Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance is pleased to announce the successful navigation of a decade of dolphin research in the western gulf.

The first 10 seasons of the Dolphin Innovation Project’s field research have yielded some 4,500 dolphin group surveys, which have formed the basis of one Honours, six Masters and one PhD theses, with three more PhDs in the making. The data and subsequent analyses from the western gulf/Useless Loop study site have led to 11 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles in Frontiers in Marine Science, Marine Mammal Science, Marine Ecology Progress Series, Molecular Ecology, Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences and more.

2 LIE3 shell

Along the way, we’ve identified over 60 sponging dolphins in the western gulf, discovered the function of shelling, and watched as a host of young males have galvanised into formidable second-order alliances. In recent seasons, we’ve added to ‘the usual suite’ of field techniques and started collecting underwater video records, laser photogrammetry data, helikite-mounted video and utilizing a hydrophone array.

We’re so very grateful to past field season leaders Alex Brown, Whitney Friedman, Livia Gerber, Anna Kopps, Dee McElligott, Krista Nicholson, and Sonja Wild; as well as a plethora of sterling volunteers/research assistants (from as far and wide as Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Switzerland, the US of A and elsewhere), without whom such long-term projects would not be possible.

And hats off to David Allen/Wolf Design for the superb logo(s)!

Wolf Design Logo Red

We extend our sincere thanks to various funding agencies that have supported this research, the University of Zurich and, of-course, Shark Bay Resources and the Useless Loop community for being so accommodating to our teams.

Following are some of the changes to dolphins and kit over the last decade:

4 Scott 2007 Scott 5 Scott 2016 Scott

Scott the sponger 2007 and 2016

 

10 Emu 2007 Emu 11 Emu 2016 Emu

Emu the sponger 2007 and 2016

 

18 Porthos 2007 19 Porthos 2011 20 Porthos 2014 21 2016 Porthos

Porthos, one of two remaining Musketeers 2007, 2011, 2014 and 2016

 

And here is how the kit and storage has evolved from 2007 to 2016:

22 2007 Kit and storage 23 2017 kit and storage

 

We’ve seen some amazing things and shared great times. 2017 brings our 11th field season and we simply cannot wait to get back out there to catch up with old friends (finned and otherwise), observe, listen, experiment, innovate and discover… and, even though few of us are actually marine biologists, this seems like a fitting way to end the blog…

24 Astronauts

 

Nov 2016 – A review paper in Biology Letters

Woohoo! Not long after our publications in Animal Cognition and Marine Mammal Science, Dr. Stephanie King and a colleague have a review in Biology Letters on vocal matching in animals.

Title: Vocal Matching: the what, the why and the how.

Authors: Stephanie King and Peter McGregor.

Abstract: Over the years, vocal matching has progressed beyond being an interesting behavioural phenomenon to one that now has relevance to a wide range of fields. In this review, we use birds and cetaceans to explain what vocal matching is, why animals vocally match and how vocal matching can be identified. We show that while the functional aspects of vocal matching are similar, the contexts in which matching is used can differ between taxa. Whereas vocal matching in songbirds facilitates mate attraction and the immediate defence of resources, in parrots and cetaceans it plays a role in the maintenance of social bonds and the promotion of behavioural synchrony. We propose criteria for defining vocal matching with the aim of stimulating more matching studies across a wider range of taxa, including those using other, non-vocal, communication modalities. Finally, we encourage future studies to explore the importance of vocal learning in the development of vocal matching, and the information it may provide to third parties in the communication network.

Key words: songbirds; cetaceans, vocal matching; vocal learning; interactive playbacks.

You can access the article at http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/10/20160666.full.

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?:

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A little burst of acceleration and some hydroplaning:

4

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

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

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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:

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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:

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Nov 2016 – Part II: The Return of the King

…after Osmo’s bruising encounter, we had a day of searching for, but not finding, Floppy’s Crew. Then another windy stretch kept us off the water. Five days later we were back out there, and found Floppy, Splitfin and Sherman, another member of their second-order alliance, filling the space where Osmo should have been. They were involved in another social interaction with some females. Where was Osmo? Had he succumbed? Were Floppy and Splitfin that fickle!? Or is that just what it takes to be a successful male in this busy, competitive bay? No time for mourning a loss. The ‘new’ trio were regularly in formation behind the female.

26 Sherm 1 27 sherm 2

We went on the search for Osmo a few more times without luck, and Stephanie’s field season had come to an end. We left Shark Bay with a sense of foreboding, but hoped Sonja and her team, continuing for another two months, might have some good news for us down the track…

 

 

28 Osmo returns

Yesssss!!! About three weeks later, we finally got a long-awaited whatsapp message from Sonja and the team… “Can anyone help us ID this finless dolphin!?” Apparently the lads Floppy and Splitfin, still with other members of their second-order alliance, were involved in a bit of intense socialising action when a big finless fella came charging in… but then he held back and watched from the periphery. Discretion is the better part of valour! Here was Osmo, back, fin-less and healing.

Fast forward to early September when Sonja and I were back on the Bellefin Flats… who did we find? Floppy. Splitfin. And Osmo!

29 flop late30 split late31 osmo late

 

On our final day on the water in the western gulf for 2016, we headed down into Useless Inlet and found the big males, together, and consorting a female. Floppy was showing even more evidence of intense social interaction in recent times; We got a couple of celebratory leaps from Splitfin; And Osmo, off to the side. Foraging. The Return of the King!

32 split ouch 33 Split leap 34

 

Nov 2016 – Part 1: The Fellowship of the Inlet…

The dolphins of Shark Bay are famous for a number of reasons, not least of which is the strong tendency for adult males to form multi-level alliances in order to consort receptive females, compete against other alliances for access to females, and protect females from attacks by other alliances. In the feature photo above, the young fella Floppy, second from the left, mixes it (tho’ probably more as a spectator than a participant) with some of the big, well-established males on the Bellefin Flats in western Shark Bay in 2009.

By 2013, a first-order alliance of three lads, Floppy, Splitfin and Osmo seemed to be solidifying around the entrance to Useless Inlet (their bigger, second-order alliance known as “Floppy’s Crew”). 

2 Flop early3 Split1 Osmo key

We’ll never know whether Floppy and Splitfin’s superbly sculptured dorsal fin profiles are a result of shark bites or intense social interaction with other dolphins. “Rake marks” from the teeth of other dolphins are prevalent in these images. Osmo sports a distinctive dorsal keyhole.

The trio were a tight alliance by 2014 and 2015 field seasons. Here, Osmo has some rake marks from recent socialising; he surfaces close to Floppy; and Splitfin forages nearby.

5 Osmo key4 Osm and Flop6 split early

In early 2016, we found the now predictable and formidable trio consistently in and around the top half of Useless Inlet and the deeper channels near the dunes – Osmo now even more distinguishable with a deep tip-nick at the apex of his fin. Fairly typical of these guys (and many other first-order alliance trios), there often seems to be a tight pair and ‘the odd guy out’: Floppy and Splitfin the pair, Osmo the third wheel, but still never far. Synchrony in behaviours indicates a tight bond.

7 trio tight 19 Trio inlet 2 8 trio tight

Floppy’s Crew is one of Dr. King’s focal alliances, and here we were on a focal follow in the inlet shallows after Floppy, Splitfin and Osmo charged in and saw off some young males, then investigated the females with older calves.

10 focal follow

It seemed like every time we found these guys in 2016, Floppy and Splitfin would be tight together, travelling or resting, while Osmo would be off foraging. Longer dives. Unpredictable surfacing locations. This could make for a challenging and/or uneventful focal follow, but at least he was bulking up for winter! Being judgemental types, we started calling him ‘Osmo ate all the pies’.

12 Osmo pies

Then one evening, another trio (from the second-order alliance “The Baywatchers”) came purposefully in behind Floppy, Splitfin, Osmo and their lady-friend. Esther and his buddies, Doo and Caipirinha, surfaced synchronously behind our lads and their lady. The intent was clear… we’re here, we’re tight, and we’re interested…

13 Esther 14 Cai and Doo

We were stunned (and thoroughly impressed) to witness Osmo drop back a little behind Splitfin and Floppy, arch his back and flex hard, in a display with tail, head and open jaw out of the water (sorry, but I was just too slow on the trigger finger). He then positioned himself repeatedly between the approaching Baywatchers and the female. The Baywatchers soon backed off and Osmo, Floppy and Splitfin relaxed, their female retained. Osmo does eat all the pies, and he is the muscle… King of the Inlet!

15 mo flex 16 battle 1 17 trio lady

Later in June, we were surveying down into the inlet and we came across a wall of dolphins… they charged by us and it was clearly on – intense socialising between battling males over a female. As we tried to keep up with the melee, we started picking out recognisable fins. On some rapid surfacings, one big dolphin appeared finless. That individual surfaced consistently near Floppy and Splitfin… no, could it be…? On other surfacings, the freshly broken fin was ‘bouncing’ back upright… look! There is a tip-nick like Osmo’s (second from the left in the third image).

18 wall 19 broken 1 20 flappy

Ouch… that’s our big fella sporting an even-more-distinctive fin than that which he already had! Everything eventually calmed down, with the losing males moving back south into the inlet. Floppy, Splitfin and Osmo won the day, keeping the female Banquo… but at what cost?

21 Ouch 22 Losers 23 ouch 3

Banquo began foraging, while the lads followed slowly behind. Osmo then went back to some foraging of his own, but we thought he was moving pretty tenderly. We had to leave them at the end of the day, hoping we’d see them all again soon…

 

 

Oct 2016 – Another DIP field season comes to an end

Four months of fieldwork in the western gulf of Shark Bay saw generally poor field conditions in terms of wind and rain, but solid data collection none-the-less for both Ph.D. student Sonja Wild and Dr. Stephanie King. A big thanks to Research Assistants Helen Hiley, Sara Niksic, and Rebecca Cope for their time and effort. Following are some happy snaps from the season:

Stormy weather…2 Storm

A golden trivially makes its way up the food chain…3 Golden trevally end

Sherman shows off his healed shark bite and scans the shallows for fish…4 Sherman in the shallows

Caipirinha struts his stuff in front of a young male…5 Cai strut

Humphrey the Wonder Spaniel considers joining a male alliance…6 Humph n dolph

Pinata shows off her newborn calf…7 Pinata and Huitzilopochtli

Relaxing (snagging) with friends in Blind Strait…8 Snaggers

Little fins; big fin…11 Little dorsals big dorsal

Sublime South Passage…18 Sublime South Passage

Sunset on salt, the young Seamen and season #10…20 Sunset on salt

Watch this space for an update on the Dolphin Alliance Project’s 35th (!!) field season.

Sep 2016 – Another publication in Marine Mammal Science

Following on from our recent commentary in Animal Cognition (doi:10.1007/s10071-016-1026-x), check out this latest paper (online early view) in Marine Mammal Science:

Title: Cranial morphology and taxonomic resolution of some dolphin taxa (Delphinidae) in Australian waters, with a focus on the genus Tursiops

Authors: Maria Jedensjö, Catherine M. Kemper and Michael Krützen.

Abstract: Phylogenetic relationships in the family Delphinidae have been widely debated. We examined 347 skulls of Tursiops, Stenella, Delphinus, Steno, Lagenodelphis, and Sousa in order to resolve the phylogenetic position of Australian species of Tursiops. Five Tursiops type specimens were included. Cranial morphology was described using 2-dimensional (2-D) and 3-dimensional geometric morphometrics (3-GM), counts and categorical data. Analyses showed a clear morphological separation of Tursiops, including type specimens, from other genera. The three Stenella species did not cluster together. Stenella attenuata clustered with Delphinus delphis, and Stenella coeruleoalba with Lagenodelphis hosei. Length and width of the skull and rostrum were important discriminators in both methods. For 3-D data, round vs. angular posterior skull shape distinguished some genera. Taxa that overlapped in the multivariate analyses had different mean tooth counts. Our study challenges genetic studies that identified Tursiops as polyphyletic, with T. aduncus closer to S. attenuata.

Key words: Tursiops, Stenella, Delphinus, Lagenodelphis, Sousa, Steno, Delphininae, Delphinidae, morphology, geometric morphometrics.

You can access the article at DOI: 10.1111/mms.12356 or drop Maria or Michael an email for further details.

Aug 2016 – New publication in Animal Cognition

Not so long since our last paper appeared in Molecular Ecology (see:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mec.13622/full), we are pleased to announce the online publication of our commentary in Animal Cognition:

Title: Cooperation or dolphin ‘tug-of-war’? Comment on Kuczaj et al. and Eskelinen et al.

Authors: Stephanie L KingSimon J Allen, Richard C Connor and Kelly Jaakkola.

Abstract: Two recent papers by Kuczaj et al. (Anim Cognit 18:543–550, 2015) and Eskelinen et al. (Anim Cognit 19:789–797, 2016) claim to have demonstrated that (i) bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) cooperated to solve a novel task and (ii) vocal signals were important for coordinating these cooperative efforts. Although it is likely that bottlenose dolphins may share communicative signals in order to achieve a common goal, we suggest that this has not been demonstrated in the aforementioned studies. Here, we discuss the two main problems that preclude any definitive conclusions being drawn on cooperative task success and vocal communication from these studies. The first lies in the experimental design. The ‘cooperative task’, involving an apparatus that requires two dolphins to pull in opposite directions in order to achieve a food reward, is not conducive to cooperation, but could instead reflect a competitive ‘tug-of-war’. It is therefore of questionable use in distinguishing competitive from cooperative interactions. Second, the suggestion that the occurrence of burst-pulsed signals in this task was indicative of cooperation is disputable, as (i) this study could not determine which dolphins were actually producing the signals and (ii) this sound type is more commonly associated with aggressive signalling in dolphins. We commend the authors for investigating this exciting and topical area in animal communication and cognition, but the question of whether dolphins cooperate and communicate to solve a cooperative task remains as yet unanswered.

The full citation of this article is: King, S.L., Allen, S.J., Connor, R.C., Jaakkola, K. (2016). Cooperation or dolphin ‘tug-of-war’? Comment on Kuczaj et al. and Eskelinen et al. Animal Cognition doi:10.1007/s10071-016-1026-x

You can access the article at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-016-1026-x or drop one of us an email for further details.

 

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