The Pacific Coastal Bottlenose Dolphin is a population of common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, that ranges from Baja, Mexico up to Monterey Bay, CA. These dolphins spend their entire lives foraging up and down the coastline, all within 1 km of the shore. Beginning in 2005, dolphins began entering Newport Harbor on a fairly regular basis. Since then, dolphin sightings in Newport Harbor have increased in frequency. Along with a team of research assistants, I started the CDOC project to systematically investigate this new behavior. Recently, I've added a new taxa to our studies, the short- and long-beaked common dolphins, Delphinus delphis and Delphinus capensis. Common dolphins typically reside in offshore, pelagic waters, but in the past few months they've been observed frequenting coastal areas, harbors, and even wetlands. The immediate goals of the CDOC project are to determine:
1. how often dolphins are entering Newport Harbor,
2. whether the same dolphins are returning to the Harbor (using photo-identification techniques),
3. what dolphins are doing while in the harbor (is this a hotspot for feeding or resting or nursing calves? or are dolphins just discovering a new territory?).
As we collect these data, we'll gain an understanding of what might be causing this "inshore shift" in dolphins' ranges and how behavior and information is transmitted socially throughout thes intelligent dolphin populations -- a model that has very important implications for management and conservation of the species.
Newport Harbor is one of the busiest yacht harbors in the country and is a popular fishing locale. Therefore, it is important to understand the impacts that dolphins are having on this region. While dolphins are fun to have around, sometimes their presence can have negative impacts, ranging from depredation (they steal fish!), interfering with navigation, or contaminating water quality.
But we're not only worried about the humans! ...Because harbor fish tend to be highly contaminated, dolphins who feed often in the harbor may be at risk for ingesting large amounts of toxin, which would negatively affect their health. And of course, anytime wild animals, such as dolphins, frequent an area populated by humans, it is important to monitor direct interactions between the two species (such as humans attempting to swim with, follow, or feed dolphins) and ensure that neither are harmed by the other.
Funding will cover:
- Software for data collection, behavioral analysis, and photo-identification
- Hardware (a rugged PDA or laptop - and it needs to be rugged!) for inputting data during dolphin observations out on the water.
- A waterproof camera for observing dolphin behavior underwater.
- The cost of fuel for the boat, which we use to collect data on dolphin behavior.
- Travel to and from conferences where I will share my findings with other researchers and scientists.
- A D-SLR camera and lens, used to take photos of dolphin dorsal fins for identification back in the lab.
- An electronic motor for our boat, so we can follow dolphins quietly without disturbing their behavior.
- A hydrophone, so we can hear dolphins' clicks and whistles under water, offering a "complete" picture of their behavior.
Any funding we receive above the minimum goal will be used to cover additional fuel costs – the more fuel we have, the more time we can spend collecting data! Additional funding would also help to cover maintenance of our research vessel (a 14-ft. Zodiac-type inflatable), annual website fees, and t-shirts for CDOC research assistants.
First and foremost, we'll learn why dolphins are entering Newport Harbor and whether there is any harm or benefit to their doing so. This has immediate implications for all harbor stakeholders, as described above.
Our data will also be used to identify dolphins within the population and determine what other dolphins they "hang out" with on a frequent basis. Dolphins have unique patterns of nicks and notches on the backs of their dorsal fins that we can use to identify individuals, kind of like the stripes of zebras or the fingerprints of humans. By taking good quality photos of their fins and using careful analyses in the lab, we can identify individuals, track their movement and behavior, and determine what other dolphins they spend time with. We use this information to determine how social learning occurs in this intelligent species and evaluate the hypothesis that calves, or young juvenile dolphins, are particularly important in the development of new dolphin behavior.
In addition, we want to test the hypothesis that dolphins are using diving sea birds as indicators of prey (fish) location. We've noticed that dolphins engage in more “head-up” behavior oriented toward sea birds and prior to feeding than in other contexts.
As an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida, I decided to major in Psychology after visiting Discovery Cove, swimming with the captive dolphins, and learning that most dolphin trainers possess a bachelor's degree in psychology. In due time, I became fascinated with applying animal models of learning and behavior to the understanding of human behavior and cognition. I also developed the insight that studying dolphins and whales in captivity was perhaps not the most effective way to learn about their natural behavior. So I decided to abandon my dreams of becoming a dolphin trainer in lieu of pursuing a PhD. I received my Ph.D. in evolutionary developmental psychology in 2010 from Florida Atlantic University and currently hold a lecturer position at California State University, Fullerton. In 2011, I began studying the coastal dolphin population off of Orange County, CA, after learning that they had only recently started entering Newport Harbor on a frequent basis. Since then, I have presented my findings to the City of Newport Beach's Water Quality Commission and at the 49th annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society in Albuquerque, NM. Recently, I received an authorization to do photographic identification and focal follows of dolphins by boat under General Authorization 6 of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). You can access my CV through the website provided below to gain a more complete view of my professional background and learn more about the link between human and dolphin psychology and behavior.
I'm finding that many aspects of the project are "falling into place," and I'm very motivated to complete the research. A shortage of funding for the project has been the biggest challenge I've faced in maintaining a productive pace. Because I am not tenure-track faculty at CSUF (my husband is, but as the younger and later-graduating partner in our marriage, I've had to accept the "less desirable" position while we search for a more ideal dual-academic-career balance), I am not eligible for departmental grants and start-up funds.