The sound of the cartridge echoed in Almirante Bay. “We did it!” – screamed the bunch of women on the panga. The captain went around the red floating device and caught it with a net. The first skin biopsy was collected. This happened last summer when a group of scientists were collecting DNA samples from the dolphins of Bocas del Toro. They were known by some of the locals as the “the dolphin girls” and they are coming back this July to continue their research and to tell us about their discovery that our dolphins are unique!
“When we analyzed the skin biopsies collected last year we confirmed these dolphins are different from other dolphins in the Caribbean region. These dolphins are genetically unique, which means they are practically isolated from other populations in the region”said biologist Dalia C. Barragán Barrera. Dalia is studying the genetics structure (the variation of genetic information) of the population of bottlenose dolphins in Bocas del Toro for her PhD research at the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. The scientists in the team, although excited about their discovery, are also concerned of the impact human activities in Bocasmay have in this unique dolphinpopulation. “Our photo-ID work of seven years had give us hints that Bocas dolphins were isolated from other population, but now that we confirmed it, we are more worried about the future of this population, we need to take measures to reduce the impact the dolphin-watching industry is having in these dolphins” said Dr. Laura May-Collado. This year Dalia and colleagues will be collecting more dolphin’s skin to learn the about the sex and family relationships of Bocas dolphins. One of the most known dolphins in our catalogue is Halfin, also known by manyBocatoreños as ‘Mocho’ and ‘Fernanda’. This year we hope to get a biopsy from this dolphin to learn its real sex.
For Dalia, who has never had any hunt-related experience, collecting a skin sample is not an easy task. She has to use a modified veterinarian rifle, shoot the dart, and hope for the best. Luckily, her thesis advisor and expert in marine mammal genetics, Dr. Susana Caballero, will be in the field this year to give her a hand.
Contrary to popular believe, this method is not truly invasive as the dolphins only feel a small pinch, just like a bee sting. In addition, they have a very strict protocol that includes a maximum of 30 minutes with a dolphin group and only one biopsy per group, per day. If you are going out on a dolphin-watching tour, no worries; the researchers will not be around during the dolphin-watching peak hours.
The long-term dolphin research
The bottlenose dolphins monitoring project at Bocas del Toro was established by Dr. Laura May Collado in 2004, when she was conducting her PhD research. She is now an Affiliated Professor at the University of Vermont and George Mason University. For her doctorate thesis she studied the vocal behavior of the dolphins and noticed that dolphins reacted to the boat engine noise by changing their sounds in frequency and duration to avoid masking. “It’s like going to a discotheque and trying to have a conversation, you have to shout and speak slowly so others can understand what you are saying” said Dr. May-Collado. Since then, the dolphins of Bocas del Toro have been the subject of a few Bachelor’s and Master’s thesis mentored by Dr. May-Collado including those of EviTaubitz, DaliaBarragan-Barrera and Shakira G. Quiñones who studiedhow dolphin interactions with dolphin-watching boats changed their communication, and how dolphins use their habitat. Their work has shown an increase in the number of dolphin-watching boats in the study area, a decrease of dolphin sightings, and changes in dolphin distribution. “Last year we counted 37 boats interacting with the same 3 dolphins for a period of 1 1/2h, surely this is not a sustainable way to observe these unique dolphins, something needs to be done” said Shakira. This trend in dolphin decline can be avoided by making changes in how we observed these animals in their natural environment.We can prevent a collapse, not only of their unique population, but of activities associated to them such as Bocas dolphin-watching industry, an activity that strengthens Bocas’ economy.
Implications for conservation
When a population goes to extinction the genetic variability of the species is dramatically reduced. This is a major concern because it represents a loss of information that might help the species to overcome future changes in their habitat. Moreover, coastal dolphin populations like the one in Bocas del Toro are of great socio-economic value to the people that depend on tourism for their economy. We are not late to save these unique dolphins. How can we accomplish this? By making changes that reduce our impact: reducing the number of observing boats to 2 at a time, reducing time of interaction, and by approaching the dolphins as established by the Panamanian Conduct Guidelines. Dolphins need to eat, reproduce, and rest, let’s give them the time they need to fulfill their biological needs, and we’ll see that in a few years we’ll have these unique dolphins back to their original numbers. If you wish to learn more about our ongoing projects and how to help to protect these dolphins please go to our website atwww.bocasdolphins.com or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.