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Population ecology of coastal bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in northern Patagonia Argentina
Vermeulen, E. (2014). Population ecology of coastal bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in northern Patagonia Argentina. PhD Thesis. University of Liège: Liège. 213 pp.

Thesis info:

    Ecology > Population ecology
    Tursiops truncatus (Montagu, 1821) [WoRMS]
    Argentina, Patagonia [Marine Regions]

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  • Vermeulen, E.

    The population ecology of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) was assessed between 2006 and 2011 in Northern Patagonia, Argentina. Over these years, 356 systematic photo-identification surveys were conducted in Bahía San Antonio, of which 227 were land-based and 129 were conducted from a small outboard-powered rigid-hull inflatable boat. In total, 1472 h was spend searching for dolphins, and resulted in 215 h of observation of 415 dolphin groups. Photo-identification data resulted in the identification of 67 individual dolphins. Based on markrecapture analysis, total abundance had a maximum corrected estimate of 83 (95%CI = 46 - 152) individuals. Adult survival rates varied between 0.97 (SE = 0.04) and 0.99 (SE = 0.01). Average calving interval of the 14 reproducing females equalled 3.5 ± 1.0 years. This results in 3.5 births/year in the entire population and a minimum annual birth rate of 4.2%. However, data suggest that calves may have been born and lost before being documented, underestimating birth rate, calf mortality and possibly the number of reproductive females. Either way, the recruitment rate of calves appears to be insufficient to compensate the overall mortality in the population. Additional data further indicated the genetic isolation and extremely low genetic diversity within this community, thus indicating this community of bottlenose dolphins is highly vulnerable and at risk. Association patterns within the studied community were relatively strong (HWI 0.30 ± 0.08), reindicating the small size of the population. Nonetheless, the fluctuation in prey density and availability appeared to be the most important factor determining their fission-fusion dynamics. It appears that a combination of aspects inherent to the species and this habitat, such as low cost of locomotion, low predation pressure and food predictability, has helped reduce the costs of fission in response to intraspecific competition. Behavioural data indicated that Bahía San Antonio is mainly used to rest and forage, with a marked diurnal and seasonal pattern in their activity. Furthermore, dolphins appeared to show a preference for the shallower waters inside their core area; they moved in and out with the tide to remain in the intertidal zone as much as possible. The observed variation in foraging activity and spatial distribution is suggested to be driven by a seasonal and locally predictable variation in prey density and availability. Most of the identified dolphins showed a yearlong residency and long term site-fidelity to Bahía San Antonio, suggesting it is the core area within the larger home range of this community. Furthermore, based on the frequent presence of calves and high residency of reproductive females, this protected coastal environment appears to provide shelter for nursing calves. Many individuals of this community ranged along the entire northern coastline of the San Matías Gulf, up to the Río Negro Estuary (approx. 200 km). Further to the north, in the southern part of the Province of Buenos Aires, a neighbouring community of bottlenose dolphins was shown to exist. Both communities are largely isolated from each other, and the environmental discontinuities between two adjacent oceanic regimes in which these communities live are hypothesised to promote their co- existence. Additionally, four individuals from another community, originating from the more southern Province of Chubut, are known to reside in Bahía San Antonio. These individuals are genetically differentiated from all other individuals in the area, clearly shown in their distinct morphology. The apparent fine-scale population structure of bottlenose dolphins over the relative small geographical distances in Argentina has conservation implications and indicates the need for further detailed research. Currently, the populations of bottlenose dolphins in the Provinces of Buenos Aires and Chubut are reported to have nearly vanished. However, this disappearance has been largely ignored in the past 40 years resulting in the studied communities to be one of the last ones remaining in the country. It seems that the coastal lifestyle and site-fidelity of coastal bottlenose dolphins, and the belief of the species to be common, may have obfuscated the need for more extensive research and conservation efforts in Argentina in former years. Local declines of common species are easily overlooked when establishing priorities for conservation, and Argentina is not a unique case. An ever-increasing number of coastal bottlenose dolphin populations are reported to be vulnerable or declining worldwide. This study provides insight into how the failure to recognise local population declines can threaten the regional status of a common species like the bottlenose dolphin. Continued research and urgent conservation measures are therefore strongly recommended to prevent the disappearance of the bottlenose dolphin from the coasts of this South American country.

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