Dolphin Ecology

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.

Gaining a fuller understanding of dolphins also means studying how they interact with their environment, including other species in their environment (even humans).

Data are collected through a variety of techniques, including systematic photographic identification surveys, periodic catch-and-release health assessments, focal animal behavioral observations, tagging and tracking of dolphins and sharks, remote biopsy dart sampling, fish surveys, and passive acoustic monitoring of fish and dolphin sounds from shore-based listening stations.

As with most animals, there are two main ecological drivers for dolphin behavior: prey and predators.

Long-term catch-and-release purse-seining fish surveys provide information on the seasonal relative abundance of dolphin prey fish in Sarasota Bay.

Potential shark predators on dolphins are tagged and tracked through the Sarasota Coastal Acoustic Network (SCAN) array of acoustic tag tracking stations. A network of passive acoustic listening stations (PALS), facilitated by citizen scientists, provides measures of bioacoustics activity from fish, dolphins, and invertebrates, and measures of human activity from recordings of vessel sounds.

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

What’s on the Menu?

September 3rd, 2023|0 Comments

Since 1970, we’ve been studying Sarasota Bay’s dolphin community — getting to know their lineages, their companions and even their favorite hangouts. But understanding the dynamics of a population of animals also includes understanding

Feeling the Heat

July 28th, 2023|0 Comments

Feeling the Heat During a Hot Summer People around the world are feeling extreme heat this summer and we’re receiving a lot of questions about what the heat might mean for dolphins. In

Dolphins and Microplastics

December 16th, 2022|0 Comments

Study Finds Evidence that Dolphins are Ingesting Microplastics A new study in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Marine Science has found evidence that members of the Sarasota Bay dolphin community are inadvertently ingesting

Fatty Acid Signatures

August 12th, 2022|0 Comments

If they are what they eat, what are dolphins eating? Thanks to our long-term studies — including seasonal fish surveys — we know what the most common prey fish are in Sarasota Bay dolphin

2021 Baby Boom

December 6th, 2021|0 Comments

The Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program has documented 22 dolphin births in 2021 to the long-term resident bottlenose dolphin community of Sarasota Bay, Florida, exceeding the record of 21 set in 2017. The

When the Prey is Gone

November 9th, 2021|0 Comments

When the Prey is Gone Gaining a fuller understanding of dolphins also means studying how they interact with their environment, including learning about one of the main ecological drivers for their behavior: prey

When Dolphins and Freshwater Mix

November 9th, 2021|0 Comments

What Happens When Dolphins and Freshwater Mix? Prolonged exposure to freshwater is linked to adverse health conditions, immune deficiencies, and even dolphin deaths, but there’s still a lot we don’t

Seagrass Matters

October 5th, 2021|0 Comments

Seagrass Matters This summer (2021), we've continued our purse-seine catch-and-release fish surveys in Sarasota Bay. These surveys, conducted seasonally since 2004, allow us to gain an indication of the relative

Taking Lessons From Sarasota Abroad

October 5th, 2021|0 Comments

This 2008 photo shows researchers preparing to release a tagged franciscana dolphin in Argentina. Dolphins were held for a brief period while satellite-linked tags were applied and then the dolphins were released on site.