The overall purpose of my PhD research is to: (1) provide the first comprehensive assessment of population dynamics for bottlenose dolphins in the Pensacola Bay system, and (2) to determine the degree of connectivity between populations in the Western Florida Panhandle. This year marks the end of year three of my research and the near completion of my field work.
Pensacola Bay has a history filled with human-related disturbances making it one of the most heavily polluted bays in Florida. There was a need to establish a baseline of population data from which to monitor dolphin health and population viability over the long term. The past three years have been spent building a bottlenose dolphin photo- identification database for the Pensacola Bay system so that we can quantify abundance, seasonal movement patterns, residency patterns, the affinity that animals have for the area, and to get a sense of how much movement there might be between this and neighboring systems. Our data analyses are still in progress with many photos still yet to process, but initial estimates show seasonal variation in the number of animals that utilize our inshore system, which is what we expect given what we know about how dolphins utilize other inshore systems in the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, there is evidence that abundance is lowest during the summer months but we will see if this holds as the rest of our data are added to the analyses.
This year we finished our remote biopsy sampling effort for the Pensacola Bay inshore system and started collecting samples along the coast. These skin samples will be added to those already available from neighboring dolphin populations so that I can start analyzing genetic data. Population genetic analyses will be done in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries to determine population structure, genetic diversity, migration rates and genetic connectivity between inshore and coastal systems in the Western Panhandle.
Over the past couple of years, our research has also focused heavily on skin lesion issues surrounding a record-breaking flood in Pensacola in 2014. The work we’ve done characterizing what we saw in our dolphins following the flood has led to a much larger discussion about dolphin skin issues in the Gulf of Mexico and their potential causes. There are other systems that have also experienced extensive skin issues surrounding flood events (for example, see the Galveston Bay article below). We are now working collaboratively to better characterize and measure the problem with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the causes of these skin issues and potential threats to dolphin health.
This research has been supported by NOAA Fisheries SEFSC, the UCF Physiological Ecology and Bioenergetics Lab, the University of West Florida (UWF) Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation, the UWF Office for Undergraduate Research Scholarships, the UCF Arnold Haverlee Exploration Endowed Scholarship, and a charitable donation from Frank Toms. Thank you to the numerous interns and volunteers that have helped over the past few years, to the SDRP team for helping me in a pinch this field season, and to Errol Ronje, Steve Shippee, Hannah Roth, Gisele Nieman, and Courtney Seely for their time helping me sample this summer!
This article appeared on pages 20-21 of the 2017 SDRP Annual Report, Nicks n Notches.