I joined the SDRP in 2008 as an intern for the research project led by Jessica Powell on the interactions between bottlenose dolphins and anglers. That period was a steep learning curve—for all of us, I guess. Dolphins were learning to relate anglers to a food source. Jess was learning its negative consequences for the Sarasota Bay dolphin community. I was learning the basics.
It was my last year as a Biology undergrad and my broken English and I was very keen to see the research on the famous Sarasota Bay dolphins in action. Three months in those inshore waters expanded my previous experiences among right and humpback whales in Brazil. Much more than the well-equipped facilities, what impressed me the most was the extreme care with the data being collected—and more importantly, the care with the dolphins’ well-being. With daily surveys painstakingly collecting data followed by long hours at the lab entering and double-checking them all, the message was clear. The world-class research by the SDRP was founded on passion for the research and the animals.
Inspired by such high standards, I went on to get a M.Sc. degree in Ecology studying Guiana dolphins in the following year. The skills I honed at SDRP were crucial for me to collect the photo-identification data needed. With that box checked, I became increasingly interested in data analysis. My colleagues and I combined mark-recapture modelling with network thinking to unravel the population and social dynamics of Guiana dolphins. Our analyses revealed a population of residents and transients, in which demographic changes were shaping the structure of their society.
That increasing interest in translating cetaceans’ social lives into numbers led me to earn a Ph.D. in Biology in Canada in 2016. My Ph.D. work involved understanding how societies and cultures evolve. To do that, I went on a somewhat unusual path: I confined myself in a small sailboat very far away from people and their diverse cultures. I joined a research group that carries out a long-term project on the sperm whales off the Galápagos Islands. There, whales from the same population form cultural clans that communicate with different patterns of clicks—whales with different dialects, if you will. My contribution was to develop a conceptual framework of how animal society and culture influence one another, using sperm whales as a model. We developed computer models that traced back the origin of sperm whale cultural clans, showing that biased cultural transmission of communication clicks are the main mechanism generating their different dialects. And with empirical data, we showed that once clans are formed, other behavioral variants (such as social norms) can emerge over time, differentiating sperm whales from different clans even more.
In my post-doctoral research, I will study another type of interaction between bottlenose dolphins and fishermen. In contrast to the harmful interactions between dolphins and anglers in Sarasota Bay, dolphins and artisanal fishermen from Laguna (Brazil) work together. Dolphins herd mullet schools towards fishermen who throw their cast nets once dolphins give the right behavioral cue. Both fishermen and dolphins catch more and larger fish when cooperating. But given the clear benefits of the interaction, it is still unknown why some dolphins do not partake in this cooperative foraging. Is it too hard or costly to learn? Is the competition for cooperative fishing sites too high? My goal is to shed light on the origin and evolution of interspecific cooperation, by confronting these empirical data with mathematical models inspired by game and network theories.
By heading back to Brazil to study dolphin-fisherman interactions, I am, in a sense, closing the cycle started with the SDRP. I bring in my baggage an important lesson learned at that time: work with passion and everything will follow.
This article appeared on page 31-32 of the 2017 SDRP Annual Report, Nicks n Notches.