About Our Research

Why We Research

Long-term study is critically important for animals that mature slowly, which include dolphins, primates, and elephants. By studying them as individuals, different patterns of foraging, socializing, and caring for young are apparent. Some dolphins have very close bonds with a few friends and some are relative loners while others are social butterflies. Some hunt with tools and others beach themselves to catch fish. Some mothers wean their offspring before their 3rd birthday, others continue to nurse their 7 and 8-year-olds.

Much of what people know about bottlenose dolphin social structure and their social relationships comes from our research at Monkey Mia and Shark Bay.

Photo Credit: Simonetta Checconi

Knowledge as a Force in Conservation

Many people think that if dolphins are unusually intelligent, then the conservation of dolphins should be more than simply a numbers game (e.g., are there enough dolphins to sustain the population). Rather, we must be concerned about the welfare of dolphins as individuals. Without evidence, however, it is easy for some to maintain the opposite stance and dismiss the dolphins’ large brain as an evolutionary anomaly.

The astonishing complexity of social relationships among the Monkey Mia dolphins suggests otherwise, and links dolphins with a few species, including our own, where large brains and complex social living appear to have evolved hand-in-hand. This knowledge will inevitably strengthen arguments for the protection of dolphins and their habitats.

Photo Credit: Eric Patterson

Big Brains and Social Living

One great mystery is why dolphins have evolved such big brains. Bottlenose dolphins, along with some other members of the dolphin family Delphinidae, have the largest brains outside of humans, when body size is taken into account. Scientists have long puzzled over what dolphins do with such large, energetically expensive brains. The Monkey Mia, Shark Bay Dolphin Research Project has revealed that dolphins, like some large-brained terrestrial mammals, lead highly complex social lives. Complex social relationships are thought to have played an important, if not primary, role in the evolution of large brains in elephants, apes, humans, and now it seems, dolphins. In fact, some aspects of the dolphin society in Shark Bay, such as multiple level male alliances, find their closest parallel in humans.

Photo Credit: Eric Patterson

Research and Conservation of the Monkey Mia Dolphins

Research has also played a direct role in the management and conservation of the Monkey Mia and Shark Bay dolphins:

  • Research demonstrated that calves born to provisioned females had twice the mortality than calves born to non-provisioned females. This was most likely due to overfeeding and unregulated feeding. The Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) responded to our research by changing their feeding policies. Calves were no longer fed and since the changes were implemented in 1995, calf survivorship has dramatically improved (Mann et al. 2000Mann & Kemps 2003; Foroughirad & Mann 2013).
  • In addition, it has been shown that aquaculture may have an impact on dolphin ranging and behaviour. These data helped deter the expansion of aquaculture in the Shark Bay area, benefiting dolphins and several other important marine species. This data are influencing aquaculture management in other parts of Australia and in New Zealand (Watson-Capps & Mann 2005).
  • Researcher Lars Bejder has been investigating the long-term impacts of vessel activity on the Shark Bay dolphins. His work has shown that when multiple tour vessels are present in a study area, the dolphin population subsequently declines in abundance in the same area. While such effects may not be catastrophic to the Shark Bay population due to its size and genetic diversity, they are still important to monitor and can serve as crucial guidelines for the management of more vulnerable populations of cetaceans worldwide (Bejder et al. 2006).

Our research team is productive in publishing findings in high-quality scientific journals and books. This is the key measure of scientific contribution. Journals include Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Animal Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology. The book ‘Cetacean Societies’ (edited and/or co-authored by Monkey Mia researchers: Dr. Richard Connor, Dr. Janet Mann and Dr. Amy Samuels) was listed as Outstanding Scientific Title 2000, by Choice magazine. The royalties from the sale of this book go to the Amy Samuels Cetacean Behaviour and Conservation Award for Graduate students, named in honor of long-time Shark Bay researcher Dr. Amy Samuels who passed away in 2008, and which is administered by the Animal Behaviour Society. To purchase a copy of Cetacean Societies click here.

Although scientific contributions are critical for building knowledge, the public also plays an important role in understanding and protecting these dolphins. We ensure the public has access to our findings through documentaries, radio interviews, popular articles, and public talks. Research is also commonly featured in magazines and nature documentaries (e.g. National Geographic, PBS-NOVA, BBC-Nature, ABC, Discovery) and newspapers. During their field seasons, researchers give public lectures at Monkey Mia several nights a week.