Dolphin reproductive research aided by UH drones

  • University of Hawaii at Manoa Marine Mammal Research Program PhD student Fabien Vivier has been operating a drone above a pregnant dolphin. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • This undated photo provided by NOAA Fisheries shows Spinner dolphins in Hawaii. (NOAA Fisheries/via AP)

  • Spinner dolphins like these are among the common marine mammals in Hawaiian waters. (NOAA/Special to West Hawaii Today)

A resident dolphin mother and her new calf at the Hilton Waikoloa Village are helping scientists to evaluate the increasing pressures on wild dolphin populations such as Hawaii’s spinner dolphins.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Marine Mammal Research Program and Dolphin Quest are collaborating on a scientific drone study aimed at better understanding the health of dolphin populations.

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Scientists are concerned that frequent human activities in the spinner dolphins’ environment are disrupting the dolphins’ natural behaviors, which may be adversely affecting their reproduction.

Fabien Vivier, a PhD student with MMRP, has been operating a drone over a pregnant bottlenose dolphin at the Dolphin Quest facility at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on Hawaii Island. He collected baseline data in order to do the same on the open ocean to detect pregnancy in female dolphins. This will help to estimate pregnancy rates for the populations of dolphins in the wild.

“Studying dolphins at Dolphin Quest is really helpful, because it allows us to verify our methodologies at a specific known stage of pregnancy, which couldn’t be accomplished working only in the wild,” Vivier said. “This information is quite relevant to studying and conserving other species such as Hawaii’s spinner dolphins because, even though the species are different, they share many similarities. If we are able to detect pregnancy from a drone perspective in the bottlenose dolphin, the likelihood of detecting pregnancy in a spinner dolphin is very good.”

Scientists said continuing reproduction supports critical wildlife conservation and is also good for the dolphin social group.

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“Reproduction and calf-rearing is important for dolphin welfare. It is a natural and enriching social behavior for dolphins in the wild and in modern zoos, aquariums and marine life parks,” said Dolphin Quest Marine Mammal Reproduction Specialist Holley Muraco. “Accredited facilities like Dolphin Quest have excellent reproductive success, which leads to long-term population sustainability and eliminates the need for collection from the wild.”

Vivier said the next step of surveying spinner dolphins in the wild is scheduled for October. He plans to tweet about the experience through the MMRP’s Twitter account.

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