Current Research


Field research for the 2013 season is ongoing until December! Three graduate students are progressing towards their degrees and making some important discoveries in the process!

Why Do Dolphins Sponge?

A dolphin carrying a sponge on its rostrum
Dolphin sponging

The Shark Bay dolphins have long been renowned for their use of marine sponges as tools. Previous research has demonstrated that dolphin mothers' pass the tradition of sponge use down to their daughters and some sons, and three generations of spongers have been observed so far.

A marine basket sponge of the type used by the dolphins in Shark Bay
Marine basket sponge

However researchers are just beginning to understand why this rare example of tool use by cetaceans has developed and persisted in this population. In a new paper in PLoS One researchers show that dolphins use these tools both for protection while ferreting out prey from the rocky seafloor, but also to allow them to hunt bottom-dwelling fish that lack swimbladders, which are undetectable by the traditional methods of vision and echolocation.

A barred sandperch (Parapercis nebulosa) hidden on the seafloor
Hidden Sandperch

The authors suggest that this method allows the Shark Bay dolphins to take advantage of this ecological niche that is otherwise unavailable without the use of tools. Check out our Video Page to see a demonstration of sponging in Shark Bay!




The Blow Project

Celine Frère, Ewa Krzyszczyk, Janet Mann & Eric Patterson

Dolphins obviously come to the surface to breathe and occasionally they blow hard enough when bow-riding our boats that we get sprayed in the face. We have recently decided to capitalize on this by developing a new non-invasive method, “blow-sampling”, which involves collecting fluid exhaled from the blowhole, and will explore the full potential of this biological sample. Our study population is ideal as we have monitored individual life histories, reproduction, behavior, genetics, and ecology for so many dolphins. In addition, the provisioned dolphins that visit Monkey Mia are an ideal population to test our methods. Thus, we can sample blow daily from the same individuals in different reproductive states, with known relatedness and partially controlled diets, allowing us to ground-truth the method and apply it to our population at large. In a 2008 pilot study we collected 90 blow samples from provisioned and non-provisioned dolphins and extracted mtDNA (maternally inherited) from their blow. In 2009 we partnered with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, USA so that we could refine our methods. Here the bottlenose dolphins were trained to blow after a light touch on the melon. We collected their blow and successfully extracted DNA. In addition, we were able to match the DNA profiles to blood samples that the Aquarium collects for routine medical procedures. This work has now been published in PLoS One. Next we hope to identify reproductive state through hormones, diet through fatty acids, health through disease presence, and kinship through mtDNA and nuclear DNA in the Shark Bay dolphins. We can then correlate these measures with age, sex, behavior, reproductive patterns and survival. This innovative and non-invasive project will acquire much-needed data for improving dolphin welfare, and can potentially set a new standard for biological sampling of cetaceans.

Other Research

In addition to several new publications, we have been presenting our work at numerous conferences. These presentations focused on sexual maturation and speckling in dolphins (see grad student Ewa Krzyszczyk’s work below), more on sponge tool use including the social networks of spongers (Mann et al. 2010), and several presentations (led by Dr. Margaret Stanton) focused on social networks of mothers and calves including on how sociality can affect survival. Researchers from several universities are collaborating to investigate the development of echolocation in newborns. Other new projects are listed below.

Conference Presentations 2010-2012:

  1. Church, K., Foroughirad, V., Patterson, E. M., Mann, J. 2012. Diving development in wild bottlenose dolphin calves. 49th Annual Meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. Albuquerque, NM. June 10th – 14th.
  2. Patterson, E.M., Fromont, J., Krzyszczyk, E. & Mann, J. 2012. Sex differences, ontogeny, and proficiency of dolphin sponge tool use. 49th Annual Meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. Albuquerque, NM. June 10th – 14th.
  3. Stanton, M.A. 2012. Fitness consequences of early sociality in wild bottlenose dolphins. 49th Annual Meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. Albuquerque, NM. June 10th – 14th.
  4. Foroughirad, V., Stanton, M. A., Mann, J. 2012. Effects of tour vessel activity on social networks of bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia. 49th Annual Meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. Albuquerque, NM. June 10th – 14th.
  5. Mann, J., Patterson, E.M., Krzyszczyk, E.B., Sargeant, B.L. 2011. Sex-bias and ontogeny of sponge tool-use in wild bottlenose dolphins. 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. Tampa, FL. November 27th – December 2nd.
  6. Patterson, E.M. & Mann, J. 2011. The Ecological Conditions that Favor Tool Use and Innovation in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops sp.) 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. Tampa, FL. November 27th – December 2nd.
  7. Stanton, M.A., Singh, L.O., Mann, J. 2011. Survival of the friendliest: A social network approach. 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. Tampa, FL. November 27th – December 2nd.
  8. Foroughirad, V., and Mann J. 2011. The impact of human provisioning on bottlenose dolphin calf mortality, maternal care, and activity budgets: Do management practices matter? 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. Tampa, FL. November 27th – December 2nd.
  9. Stanton, M., Mann, J., Gibson, Q., Sargeant, B., Bejder, L. & Singh, L. 2011. Snapshot or movie: How sampling methods bias dolphin social network metrics. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  10. Cotter, A. & Mann, J. 2011. Predation risk and birth seasonality in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  11. Gallagher, L., Mann, J., Foroughirad, V. & Waston-Capps, J. 2011. A comparison of observational sampling methods for measuring activity budgets of wild dolphins. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  12. Foroughirad, V. & Mann, J. 2011. Does provisioning affect calf mortality and activity budgets in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) in Shark Bay, Australia? Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  13. Barnao, J., Patterson, E., Sargeant, B. & Mann, J. 2011. Going with the flow?: The relationship between sponge foraging dolphins (Tursiops sp.) and tidal current. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  14. Patterson, E., Teter, B., Krzyszczyk, E., Hunter, S., Ginsburg, A. & Mann, J. 2011. The Lipid and Fatty Acid Composition of Cetacean Blow. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  15. Sidhu, N. & Mann, J. 2011. Synchrony and Development in Bottlenose Dolphins. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  16. Hovis, K., Stanton, M., Mann, J. & Ryan, R. 2011. Quantifying the Rate of Fission-Fusion. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, Conway, SC, Apr 1-3.
  17. Wahlberg, M. & Delgado, L. 2011. Ontogeny of bottlenose dolphin echolocation. European Association of Aquatic Mammals Symposium, Barcelona, Spain, Mar 10-14.
  18. Stanton, M. Singh, L., & Mann, J. 2011. Predicting Survival from Social Network Metrics in Bottlenose Dolphins. International Network for Social Network Analysis, Sunbelt Conference XXXI, St. Pete’s Beach FL, Feb 8-13.
  19. Krzyszczyk, E., & Mann, J. 2010. Using speckling rates of known aged Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops sp. in Shark Bay, Australia as a model to age others in the population. 13th International Behavioural Ecology Congress, Perth, Australia, Sept 25-Oct 1.
  20. Mann, J., Foroughirad, V., Krzyszczyk, E., Tsai, Y.J. 2010. Female-Biased Investment in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops sp.), Shark Bay, Australia. 13th International Behavioural Ecology Congress, Perth, Australia, Sept 25-Oct 1.
  21. Stanton, M., Gibson, Q.A., Mann, J. 2010. Bottlenose dolphin mother and calf ego networks during separations. Animal Behavior Society, Williamsburg, VA July 25-31.
  22. Mann, J., Sargeant, B.L., Patterson, E.M. 2010. Sex-Bias and Ontogeny of Sponge Tool-Use in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins, Animal Behavior Society, Williamsburg, VA July 25-31.
  23. Stanton, M.A., Gibson, Q.A., Mann, J. 2010. When mum’s away: A comparison of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops sp.) mother and calf ego networks during separations in Shark Bay, Australia. Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium (SEAMAMMS), Virginia Beach, March 2010.
  24. Stanton, M.A., Mann, J. Bienenstock, E.J., Gibson, Q.A., Sargeant, B.L., Bejder, L. & Singh, L.O. 2010. Snapshot or movie: How sampling methods bias dolphin social network metrics. International Network for Social Network Analysis, Sunbelt Conference, Trento Italy, June-July.
  25. Bienenstock, E., Stanton, M.A., & Mann, J. Sex, dominance and quasi-symmetry in wild bottlenose dolphins. International Network for Social Network Analysis, Sunbelt Conference, Trento Italy, June-July
  26. Mann, J., Patterson, E., Bienenstock, E.J., Sargeant, B.L., Stanton, M.A., Krzyszczyk, E B., Gibson, Q.A., Tsai, Y.J. , Singh, L.O. 2010. Is dolphin sponging a culture? A Social Network Approach. International Network for Social Network Analysis, Sunbelt Conference, Trento Italy, June-July.
  27. Bacher, K., Smith, H., Krzyszczyk, E., Mann, J., Kopps, A. M. 2010. What makes a dolphin turn vegetarian? 24th Conference of the European Cetacean Society, Stralsund, Germany, March.


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