What’s it like to do a research internship at PWF?

On the first field day for our two summer interns, you could sense the excitement as we set out on our research vessel, Ocean Protector, to survey for dolphins. Pacific Whale Foundation Research Department offers internships that give individuals the opportunity to get hands on experience in collecting and analyzing field data on marine mammals.

During our survey the interns were overjoyed when we came across a pod of Hawaiian spinner dolphins, as it was the first time ever seeing this species of dolphin for both young researchers. Spinner dolphins are named for their acrobatic spinning leaps that are unique to this species. These dolphins can spin up to seven times when they propel themselves out of the water. Scientists do not know for certain why they spin, but believe the dolphins may use the aerial spinning behavior as a form of communication or as a way to remove parasites.

As the interns took turns on the research camera, trying to capture photos of individual dorsal fins, they made several important observations about the group of around 80 spinner dolphins that we encountered.  They were first struck by the sheer size of the group. Spinner dolphins are usually sighted in large groups of 100-1000 individuals. The interns quickly learned that it can be very overwhelming to take photographs and get an accurate group count of the animals since multiple dolphins will surface at the same time. Due to these difficulties, we also use underwater footage captured on a GoPro to help us gather data on group size. As we continued following the pod and collect data, one of the interns asked why the animals were not spinning. We explained to the interns that spinner dolphins here in Hawaii typically rest during the day time, and feed in large groups offshore at night. Spinner dolphins’ resting behavior usually involves slow swimming, but spins and leaps can also be observed on occasion and can be a sign that the pod has been disturbed. After spending a memorable hour collecting the data and photos needed, we continued on with our field day.

Once back in the office, the interns got the chance to process the data that was collected in the field.  This involves looking through the photos that were taken, finding the best photo of each individual, and matching the individuals to our existing spinner dolphin catalog. The interns matched the photos to our spinner dolphin catalog that currently has 438 individuals, and found 27 matches. The current population of Hawaiian spinner dolphins in the Maui 4-island region is unknown; our catalog will to help us estimate the number of individuals and look at their distribution and movements. These valuable data will help us protect these dolphins, which are facing increasing disturbances and threats from human interactions.

Seeing Some Familiar Fins

The PWF research team recently had a great encounter with a pod of bottlenose dolphins that were hunting fish. Back in the office, we used the bottlenose dolphin photo-identification catalog to reveal some interesting information about the group. As it turns out, this pod contained an adoption animal (#095, “Pa‘ani”), our oldest cataloged animal (#005), a dolphin newly confirmed as a male (#114), and a female who had a calf last summer (#006).

Dolphin #005 was sighted in the very first pod added to the PWF bottlenose dolphin catalog in 1996, and dolphin #006 was first seen in 1997, making them at least 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Our adoptable female, #095 (“Pa‘ani”), was first seen in 2010, meaning she is potentially a bit younger than #005 and #006. Since she had already reached her adult size when she was first seen, it is difficult to determine her actual age, but we know she is at least 7 years old.

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All Things Are Possible!

Summer break may be finished, but Ocean Camp memories gust thicker than my Oklahoma accent. As I plug away behind my computer reconciling administrative tasks and reacquainting myself with current events, I can easily become discouraged with the empty nest syndrome of a quieter classroom and the multitude of unjust issues impacting our precious marine life. Yet every climb down the stairs in our office confronts me with the reason why I do what I do. Tacked on an otherwise barren, white wall is a sign that speaks volumes above the noisy staircase it decorates. The artistically rendered petition reads, “Save Lolita” referring to a captive orca. This project is a representation of the many efforts that result from our educational program Ocean Camp.

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Sightings of baby spinner and spotted dolphins

Recently the research team set out towards the island of Lanaʻi to continue our odontocete and marine debris surveys. Around 9:30 am, we came across a pod of approximately 100 spinner dolphins, including five calves. Even better, two of the calves were neonates: newborn dolphins!

Neonates can be distinguished by their small size: only 75-80 centimeters long in spinner dolphins — about the length of a skateboard. They also have “fetal folds” on their sides. These vertical, lightly-colored “stripes” are the result of being folded up inside mom, and they fade with time as the calf grows.

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Underwater Footage of Whales and Dolphins Interacting

If two animals share the same environment, then at some point they are likely to meet. In the wild these meetings are often between predator and prey; however, nature isn’t always so cruel. Some such encounters, referred to as “interspecies interactions,” can be playful or social, where neither individual is threatened.

 

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FACT OF THE WEEK: The Name Game

FACT OF THE WEEK: Bottlenose dolphins may address each other by name!

MORE ON THIS: Recent research has suggested that bottlenose dolphins have individually unique signature whistles that are equivalent to human names. During the first few months of life, a dolphin will develop its own signature whistle made up of a series of sounds and notes. Dolphins will also adopt the signature whistle of other dolphins in the pod to identify and communicate with different individuals, specifically close associates or those with strong social bonds. When a dolphin emits its own signature whistle, a  dolphin that is a close associate will reply with a copied version of the whistle with a few subtle alterations that differentiates the signature whistle from the copied whistle. This allows the second dolphin to relay information back to the first dolphin; the alterations to the whistle may also give information about who the second dolphin is.

Signature whistles httpwww.cell.comcmsattachment20079513612030487757gr2.jpg

Image from: Janik, V.M. 2013. Cognitive skills in bottlenose dolphin communication. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(4): 157 – 159.

Many species of dolphins live in fission-fusion societies, this means that the size and composition of the pod will change as time passes. When pods merge together, vocal signatures are exchanged in order to learn about the identities of individual members of the new pod. These exchanges are generally repeated several times during the interaction to either improve the probability of correct identification, or provide additional information with each exchange.

FURTHER READING:

Written by Patrice Hostetter