Tag Archives: dolphins

Every year, locals from the Faroe islands slaughter thousands of dolphins as a tradition. Now it could be banned

The government of the Faroe Islands is reviewing the country’s annual dolphin-and-whale hunt.

Image credits Wikimedia.

According to representatives of the administrative body, no decision has yet been made and several options are being considered. A final decision on the future of this hunt is expected in the coming weeks, they added.

Reviewing tradition

The Faroes are a pretty tiny archipelago to the north of the United Kingdom. Politically, they are an autonomous territory, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, much like Greenland. And, for the longest time now, it has maintained the custom of the “grindadráp”, or “grind” for short.

During grindadrap, fishermen seek out groups of dolphins or pilot whales and surround them with a semi-circle of fishing boats. The animals are then driven into a shallow bay, where they are subsequently beached. Fishermen on shore then slaughter the animals, which are now easy pickings.

Last year’s grind, which took place on September 12, 2021, occured on a much larger scale than any previously. The event, which saw the slaughter of more than 1,400 Atlantic white-side dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) sparked quite a wave of international outrage. Following that event, the country’s Prime Minister Bardur a Steig Nielsen ordered an official re-evaluation of the hunt.

That re-evaluation is now complete. The government discussed its conclusion at a meeting in Torshavn on Tuesday. Despite the public interest in this topic, no decision seems to have been reached just yet.

“It was a first meeting. No decisions were taken,” an official in the prime minister’s office told Agence France Presse, adding that “several options” are on the table, with a final decision expected “in a few weeks”.

A petition with almost 1.3 million signatures calling for a ban on the hunt was also submitted to the Faroe government on Monday, adding further pressure on lawmakers to come to a decision.

That being said, the hunt still enjoys wide support in the Faroes. It is part of local tradition, and this hunt has been a vital food source for local communities historically. It is very unlikely that all the customs surrounding the grind will be banned; the government explained that only the hunt is currently under review, not the whole tradition.

Dolphins have personality traits very similar to humans, study finds

They have evolved in vastly different environments but dolphins appear to share key human personality traits, according to a new study. Researchers looked at over 100 dolphins from all over the world and found that they can be curious and sociable, two of the personality traits that define human behavior.

Image credit: Flickr / Gregory Smith

Known for the elongated shape of their upper and lower jaws, bottlenose dolphins are the most common type of dolphins and can be found everywhere except the Arctic and Antarctic. There are at least three species of bottlenose dolphins: the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), the Burrunan dolphin (Tursiops australis), and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus). They are easy to view in the wild because they live close to shore and are distributed throughout coastal waters, which makes them at risk of human-related injuries.

Bottlenose dolphins are among the most intelligent animals (if not the most intelligent) on Earth.

They have the largest brain mass per body size of any animal except humans, displaying high intelligence and social abilities. They live in societies and can even use tools.

Blake Morton and a team of researchers from the University of Hull collected data on 134 common bottlenose dolphins from different facilities from Mexico, France, the US, Curacao, the Netherlands, Sweden, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands. They gave questionnaires to the staff members who knew the dolphins well and could assess their personality.

“Dolphins were a great animal for this kind of study because, like primates, they are intelligent and social. We reasoned that if factors such as intelligence and gregariousness contribute to personality, then dolphins should have similar personality traits,” Morton said in a statement. “They have brains considerably larger than that their bodies require for basic bodily functions.”

Human behavior has five personality traits, which — funny enough — form the acronym OCEAN. These include Openness (curious, playful, and active), Conscientiousness (reliable, Predictability, and self-controlled), Extraversion (friendly, outgoing, and sociable), Agreeableness (kind, affectionate, and helpful), and Neuroticism (anxious, erratic, and emotionally unstable).

Although previous studies have looked at the extent to which these traits are shared by monkeys and apes, the study by Morton and his team looked at intelligent animals in a completely different setting. “Scientists still do not fully understand why our behavior comes down to those five traits, so one way of doing that is to compare ourselves to other animals,” Morton said.

The researchers found that dolphins have personality traits related to curiosity and sociability, specifically openness and a trait that is a blend of extraversion and agreeableness — although dolphins have evolved in a completely different environment from primates and their last common ancestor living around 95 million years ago.

“We’ve known for some time that dolphins are similar to us in other respects – for instance, you can just watch dolphins on television and see they’re very obviously smart and social,” Morton said. “I don’t want people to misinterpret that and say humans and dolphins have the same personality traits – they don’t. It’s just that some of them are similar.”

While the study provided insights on how the human personality traits might have evolved, for the researchers it’s just a first step in beginning to understand the full spectrum of traits exhibited by dolphins. Further studies will help to better appreciate the species living in our oceans and will lead to a better understanding of the human behavior, they added.

The study was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology

Dolphins are seeing a rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and it’s our fault

Antibiotic resistance is reaching dramatic levels in some wild ecosystems, reports a study on bottlenose dolphins living in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.

Image credits Claudia Beer.

One of the scariest public health issues we’re contending with today is the rise of antibiotic resistance. Many common bacterial strains are evolving to resist the drugs we rely on to treat them, making even mundane infections potentially deadly — and antibiotic development isn’t keeping up.

Once primarily confined to health care settings, these resistant strains of bacteria are now commonly found in other places, especially marine environments, a new study reports.

No cure for the porpoise

“In 2009, we reported a high prevalence of antibiotic resistance in wild dolphins, which was unexpected,” said Adam M. Schaefer, MPH, lead author and an epidemiologist at Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Harbor Branch. “Since then, we have been tracking changes over time and have found a significant increase in antibiotic resistance in isolates from these animals.”

“This trend mirrors reports from human health care settings.”

The team from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, in collaboration with the Georgia Aquarium and the Medical University of South Carolina and Colorado State University, conducted a long-term study from 2003 to 2015 of antibiotic resistance among bacteria retrieved from dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. The site was picked because this lagoon has a large coastal human population with a pronounced environmental impact.

Using the Multiple Antibiotic Resistance (MAR) index, the researchers obtained a total of 733 pathogen isolates from 171 individual bottlenose dolphins. Several of these strains are important human pathogens, the team explains.

“Based on our findings, it is likely that these isolates from dolphins originated from a source where antibiotics are regularly used, potentially entering the marine environment through human activities or discharges from terrestrial sources,” Schaefer explains.

The overall prevalence of resistance to at least one antibiotic for the 733 isolates was 88.2%. The highest prevalence of resistance found by the team were to erythromycin (91.6% of isolates), ampicillin (77.3%) and cephalothin (61.7%), and resistance to cefotaxime, ceftazidime, and gentamicin increased significantly between sampling periods for all the isolates.

Resistance to ciprofloxacin among E. coli isolates more than doubled between sampling periods, the team reports, reflecting recent trends in human clinical infections. The MAR index increased significantly from 2003-2007 and 2010-2015 for Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Vibrio alginolyticus. P. aeruginosa causes respiratory system and urinary tract infections among others, while the latter is a common pathogenic strain of Vibrio found to cause serious seafood-poisoning.

“The nationwide human health impact of the pathogen Acinetobacter baumannii is of substantial concern as it is a significant nosocomial pathogen with increasing infection rates over the past 10 years,” said Peter McCarthy, Ph.D., co-author, a research professor and an associate director for education at FAU’s Harbor Branch.

“The high MAR index for this bacteria isolated from dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon represents a significant public health concern.”

The paper “Temporal Changes in Antibiotic Resistance Among Bacteria Isolated from Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Indian River Lagoon, Florida, 2003-2015” has been published in the journal Aquatic Mammals.


French scientists looked at what makes dolphins happy — and they’re very much like us

Much like us, dolphinkind draws happiness from the relationships they foster — including those with humans.


“Want to hang out by the pond and chew some pufferfish, finless pink mammal?”
Image credits Claudia Beer.

A team of French researchers tried to gauge what dolphins in captivity look forward to most. The study — which they say is the first of its kind — focused on animals from a marine park near Paris and found that they just can’t get enough playtime with a familiar human.

The study came as part of a three-year project meant to measure dolphin welfare in captivity. It’s the first effort to understand the subject from “the animals’ perspective”, the team writes, and shows they’re surprisingly similar to us: the results show that “better human-animal bonds equals better welfare”.

The team worked with the dolphins at Parc Astérix, a theme park with one of France’s largest dolphinariums. With help from her colleagues at the University of Paris’ Animal Behavior Lab, lead author Dr. Isabella Clegg designed several experiments to see how the dolphins felt about certain situations. These were primarily based on interpreting their body postures, activity levels, and other types of behavior. The end goal, she adds, was to “find out what activities in captivity they like most.”

The experiments included three settings. One was the control, in which the dolphins were left alone to do what they wanted. The second involved adding toys to the pool but leaving the dolphins alone. The third one involved a human trainer who came in and played around with the animals.

“We found a really interesting result – all dolphins look forward most to interacting with a familiar human,” Dr. Clegg told the BBC.

The team explains that the dolphins showed their enthusiasm through actions such as “spy-hopping”, in which they would peer above the surface to look in the direction that trainers usually approached from. They were also more active, swimming around the pool in anticipation, and spent more time around the pool’s edge.

“We’ve seen this same thing in other zoo animals and in farm animals,” said Dr. Clegg, adding: “Better human-animal bonds equals better welfare.”

The findings do raise some interesting points. Relationships seem to be the cornerstone of happiness, overall mental well-being, and health of humans. This similarity may come down to the fact that dolphins are also social animals and quite intelligent ones at that. It may be, then, that we could form similar bonds with other species that espouse such traits — helping us learn more about them in the process.

Still a tough subject

However, the study can’t say if the dolphins are actually happier in captivity than they would be in the wild — it can only tell us that dolphins in captivity really get a kick out of interacting with people.

That final point sticks out like an especially sore thumb. According to the Change for Animals Foundation, there are over 2,300 captive cetaceans in 50 countries around the world. However, there are certainly more out there but not officially registered. The study at hand shows that we can make these animals enjoy themselves in our presence — but that doesn’t clear the murky moral question of their captivity in the first place.

All this considered, it is undeniable that the whales and dolphins brought into aquariums from the wild have been invaluable to our efforts to understand these species. There’s also an economic and public incentive to maintain this situation — people are curious to see these charming species, and aquariums are happy to charge them for it — so it’s not going to change very soon. While not pleased with the situation, Dr. Clegg believes we should strive to make their lives as happy and enjoyable as we possibly can while they’re here.

“I think the question of whether they should be in captivity is really important and we should be asking it at the moment,” she says. “And it has two elements: are the animals in good welfare? And what is their purpose? And we have to look deeper into the animals’ behaviour to understand how they’re feeling.”

“But even if they are in good welfare, we need more research to ensure that their presence is really engaging people with conservation. If they’re just here for our entertainment, that can’t be justified.”

I agree with her on both points.

The full paper “Looking forward to interacting with their caretakers: dolphins’ anticipatory behaviour indicates motivation to participate in specific events” has been published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.


Cyprian dolphins resort to chewing through fishing nets due to overfishing

Hungry dolphins are resorting to risky tactics to get food — they’ve taken to ripping nets for the fish inside.


Image credits Wolfgang Zimmel.

Researchers studying the interactions between fishermen and dolphins in northern Cyprus report that the animals are resorting to desperate measures to put food on the table — they’re tearing into nets to eat the fish inside. Nets in this area were up to six times more likely to be damaged when dolphins were in the vicinity.

The pirate porpoise


“It seems that some dolphins may be actively seeking nets as a way to get food,” said Dr. Robin Snape, an ecologist at the University of Exeter, who led the study.

Damaged nets are undoubtedly bad news for fishermen — the cost of repairing or replacing them can reach up to thousands of euros per year. Considering that most operations in the area are small-scale expeditions carried out by modest economic actors, it can pose a significant threat to their livelihoods.

However, the team says fishermen should own up to the situation for which they are, at least in part, to blame. The team points to overfishing as the likely cause of the dolphins’ behavior. Dr. Snape says the situation worryingly bears the signs of a ‘vicious cycle’ where depleted fish stocks result in poor catches, pushing fishers to deploy more fishing nets (which means more costs), further depleting stocks.

“Effective management of fish stocks is urgently needed to address the overexploitation that is causing this vicious cycle,” he adds.

Local fishermen have also called for maximum quotas and off-limits areas to better manage the area’s fish stocks.

As a more short-term solution, the team tried the use of pingers — devices that emit sounds at frequencies intended to drive away dolphins — to enable fishermen to keep their nets safe. However, that backfired quite spectacularly, the team concluding that these devices may have actually worked as “dinner bells” to attract the dolphins.

More powerful pingers may be effective as deterrents, they add, but such devices also have the potential to disturb the marine ecosystems they’re deployed in — so that’s not a viable solution.

The damage, however, isn’t one-sided. The team also tried to estimate how many dolphins died in the area as a result of human action. Reportedly, at least 10 dolphins were accidentally caught in the study area each year. They caution that this figure likely doesn’t reflect reality, as fishermen are likely to under-report such incidents — dolphins have protected status.

Another issue the team highlighted is dolphin consumption of plastic from the fishermen’s nets. They report that sizeable chunks had been cut out of the damaged nets they analyzed; at least part of that material — if not all — is likely to have made its way down the gullet of dolphins, they explain. Marine animal consumption of plastic is a world-spanning environmental concern. Species big and small, from fish to whales, have been found with ingested plastic waste.

A more local problem is that the dolphins of northern Cyprus are poorly understood, and likely only limited in number. So even the small-scale losses reported by the fishermen (again, likely under-estimated) would have a sizeable impact on their population.

The paper “Conflict between Dolphins and a Data-Scarce Fishery of the European Union” has been published in the journal Human Ecology.

(c) askabiologist.asu.edu/

Convergent evolution in bats and dolphins driven by same genes

It’s amazing how two different animals from two completely different environments evolve some identical physical features. Take bats and dolphins for instance. Both of them use a complex system that produces, receives and process ultrasonic sound waves in order to identify visually hidden objects, track down prey or navigate through obstacles better – typically this is referred to as echolocation, a natural sonar. The evolution of similar traits in different species, is known as convergent evolution, and  according to new research led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London and published in Nature this week, evolution at a genetic level is also shared during this process.

To see the extent to which convergent evolution involves the same genes, the researchers proceeded to undertake the most complex and thorough genome-wide surveys of its type. As such, the genomes of some 22 mammals were analyzed, each sequence being compared the other. This included bats and bottlenose dolphins – two species that both use the same form of echolocation, but which have evolved it independently.

This was no easy task, however. To perform the analysis, the team had to sift through millions of letters of genetic code using a computer program developed to calculate the probability of convergent changes occurring by chance, so they could reliably identify ‘odd-man-out’ genes. They used a supercomputer at Queen Mary’s School of Physics and Astronomy (GridPP High Throughput Cluster) to carry out the survey.

(c)  askabiologist.asu.edu/

(c) askabiologist.asu.edu/

Did you know that the scientists that developed the sonar and radar navigation systems used by the military got their idea from studying bat echolocation? Just like bat echolocation, sonar uses sound waves to navigate and determine the location of objects like submarines and ships. Only sonar is used underwater, while bats echolocate in the open air. Radar uses electromagnetic waves to determine the location of objects like planes and ships. Like bat echolocation, radar is also used on open air.

To their surprise, the researchers didn’t find one, two or even dozens of identical genetic changes, but over 200! Consistent with an involvement in echolocation, signs of convergence among bats and the bottlenose dolphin were seen in many genes previously implicated in hearing or deafness.

“We know natural selection is a potent driver of gene sequence evolution, but identifying so many examples where it produces nearly identical results in the genetic sequences of totally unrelated animals is astonishing,” said Dr Joe Parker, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and first author on the paper.

Dr. Georgia Tsagkogeorga, who undertook the assembly of the new genome data for this study, added: “We found that molecular signals of convergence were widespread, and were seen in many genes across the genome. It greatly adds to our understanding of genome evolution.”

Group leader, Dr Stephen Rossiter, said: “These results could be the tip of the iceberg. As the genomes of more species are sequenced and studied, we may well see other striking cases of convergent adaptations being driven by identical genetic changes.”

Joe Parker, Georgia Tsagkogeorga, James A. Cotton, Yuan Liu, Paolo Provero, Elia Stupka, Stephen J. Rossiter.Genome-wide signatures of convergent evolution in echolocating mammalsNature, 2013; DOI:10.1038/nature12511

Dolphins Have and Respond to Names


Humans are proud to be one of the only species to have identifying names and words that separate them from the other members of the animal kingdom.  For a long time it was thought that humans were the only ones with a language.  But it recently has been found that now they are not the only ones with such capabilities.  Dolphins have now been found to use their unique whistling sounds to name and call each other furthering the boundaries of their intelligence.  Check out what DNews had to say about the study here.

Dolphins are known for having distinct whistles which only a single dolphin will have; similar to how humans have distinct voices.  These whistles can be used to help identify dolphins in large groups when a few groups meet.  But now it is thought that their whistles may be used for more than just separating them in a group.  National Geographic quoted a study that found that dolphins may in fact have names and use those names to separate themselves from other dolphins.  In the study, scientists played recordings of a dolphin’s supposed name and found that almost all the time the dolphin would respond to the recording with a sort of answering response.  The dolphin also responded slightly to recordings of dolphins from their same population.  However, when sounds were played from dolphins that were not a part of their group, the dolphin did not respond at all meaning that the dolphin could tell the difference between the recordings. This proved that the whistles dolphins make were not nonsense, but in fact driven by a want to communicate with each other on a higher level.

Dolphins have also been found to form close relationships within their given group and with the findings from this new study, scientists have a better explanation why.  The ocean is a very big, cloudy, and dark environment and visibility is not always the best for the animals that live it.  Having unique sounds that help separate animal groups and even individual dolphins means that it is easier to determine exactly which group member is around them and help them be alerted to any threats that may face them or the group they are with. In a 2006 PNAS study of dolphins, it was found that selection pressure from the need for individual recognition was the mostly likely cause of the vocal evolution of dolphins.  This backs up the reasoning behind why dolphins even have unique sounds in the first place. With this newer study,   scientists have even begun to question if dolphins are able to gossip and talk about other dolphins by using their names.

It is well known that dolphins are extremely smart; some might say that they are smart enough to  even get a college degreeDr Carl Sagan once noted that dolphins have been “reported to have learned English-up to fifty words used in correct context”.  It should be of no surprise that they have learned to use their whistles to separate each other in large groups and even give themselves names.  This study leads to question how intelligent dolphins really are and how much more we have to find out about their mental capabilities.

A bottlenose dolphin.

Dolphins talk like humans, study says

A team of researchers have shown in a recently released paper published in the journal Royal Society Biology Letters that dolphins actually communicate with each other through a process much in the way humans use. What has been mistaken for a long time as plain whisteling has now been proven to be a much more complex means of communication.

A bottlenose dolphin. Sure, dolphins sound like whistling, but the sound is made differently than previously thought – by vibrations of tissues in their nasal cavities that are analogous to our vocal cords, identical the the operation of vocal folds by humans and many other land-based animals.

“When we or animals are whistling, the tune is defined by the resonance frequency of some air cavity,” said Peter Madsen, lead author of the research.”The problem is that when dolphins dive, their air cavities are compressed due to the increasing ambient pressure, which means that they would produce a higher and higher pitch the deeper they dive if they actually whistle.”

The research was sprung by the curious mystery around how dolphins are able to signal their signature sound to identify themselves with their peer even in deep water were the frequency of sound is different. If dolphins indeed communicated through whistling, the pitch would cause the identity call to sound different, which is not the case.

Researchers capitalized on previous data from 1977, which contained the recording of 12-year-old male bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). At the time, the researchers had the dolphin breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen called heliox. When humans breathe the concoction, it causes them to sound in a high-pitch manner, commonly referred to as the “Donald Duck”. The mixture has a sound speed 1.74 times higher than air. In this medium, the pitch of the tune will thus be 1.74 higher while whistling than whistling in air.

“We found that the dolphin does not change pitch when it is producing sound in heliox, which means that its pitch is not defined by the size of its nasal air cavities, and hence that it is not whistling,” Madsen said. “Rather, it makes sound by making connective tissue in the nose vibrate at the frequency it wishes to produce by adjusting the muscular tension and air flow over the tissue.”

“That is the same way that we humans make sound with our vocal cords to speak,” he added.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that dolphins can talk, only that they can communicate through the same process. Dolphins use an intricate set of clicking and chirps sounds, besides whistling, which they use to communicate between themselves, like most commonly their identity so that they don’t get lost. Little is known about this code, although a number of researchers are trying to decipher it.

Acoustics engineer John Stuart Reid and Jack Kassewitz of the organization Speak Dolphin have created an instrument known as the CymaScope that reveals detailed structures within sounds, allowing their architecture to be studied pictorially.

“There is strong evidence that dolphins are able to ‘see’ with sound, much like humans use ultrasound to see an unborn child in the mother’s womb,” Kassewitz said. “The CymaScope provides our first glimpse into what the dolphins might be ‘seeing’ with their sounds.”

He added, “I believe that people around the world would love the opportunity to speak with a dolphin. And I feel certain that dolphins would love the chance to speak with us — if for no other reason than self-preservation.”

The researchers believe the finding applies to all toothed whales, since they have similar nasal anatomy and they “all face the same problem of making sound during deep dives.”

I’m pretty sure dolphins would have a few things to say about what happens in the world’s oceans, but that’s another story for when we’re truly prepared to welcome our dolphin overlords, I guess.