Dolphin Behavior

Dolphin Life: What we’ve learned in 40 years

SDRP conducts the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population, initiated in 1970. Information available from five decades of research on the multi-decadal, multi-generational, year-round resident community of individually identifiable bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay established this as a unique natural laboratory for learning about the biology, behavior, ecology, social structure, health, and communication of dolphins, as well as the effects of human activities on them.

Long-term study is crucial for understanding the lives of members of long-lived species such as bottlenose dolphins, and for being able to detect trends in populations relative to changes in their environment. Knowing the long-term geographic range of a population unit allows the measurement of exposure to threats, which in turn facilitates mitigation, including direct interventions.

The ability to observe identifiable individual dolphins of known sex, age, and familial relationships through all of their life history milestones and associated transitions in behavioral and social patterns, to collect data on health and condition, and to then document their reproductive success and cause of death is rare in cetacean research.

Understanding animal behavior is about more than just making a note of every exciting or interesting thing that happens. Instead, it’s a systematic documentation of all of their behavior and activities. During Focal Dolphin Behavioral Follows (Focal Follows), we follow dolphins for a predetermined period of time, recording what an animal is doing at set intervals (typically every three minutes). That allows us to put behavior into perspective relative to other activities over time.

Such non-invasive behavioral studies were developed by Dr. Jeanne Altmann, a behavioral ecologist famous for her groundbreaking studies on the social behavior of baboons.

The depth of background knowledge about each member of the locally resident “cast of characters” guides research and facilitates interpretation of data on the behavior of individuals.

Studies have examined such topics as ranging patterns, habitat use, feeding behavior, and are especially focused on adverse human interactions, such as provisioning, responses to boat approaches and construction activities, and interactions with anglers.

We typically conduct these surveys using a vessel with a tower, which allows us to better see through the water’s surface, and we are integrating drones into our research to gain an even better view of the animals.

Since we began using these techniques in the 1980s, we have records of more than 2,000 Focal Follows and the information we’ve gained has allowed us to answer important questions — for instance, how much time dolphins spend feeding or socializing compared to other activities. Having this baseline information allows us to detect unusual behaviors or problems.

Research is conducted under a series of Scientific Research Permits issued by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and annual renewals of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approvals by Mote Marine Laboratory.