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Humpback Dolphins

By: , Posted on: November 20, 2015

An Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis) leaps near a port facility off the Queensland coast of Australia.  Photo by Isabel Beasley.
An Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis) leaps near a port facility off the Queensland coast of Australia. Photo by Isabel Beasley.

On 28th October 2015 Want China Times reported the story of a Chinese humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) named by locals as “Dabai” (after the white robot in Big Hero 6). Dabai had strayed up China’s Pearl River Estuary toward the city of Guangzhou. Although the authorities have tried to save Dabai, the dolphin remains in the fresh water of the estuary, and unless she makes it back to the sea soon – she may die there. The article notes that it is possible that over fishing and degradation of Dabai’s habitat had caused the dolphin to stray into the estuary in search of food.  The article also reports on dozens of humpback dolphin skeletal specimens held at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-Sen University.  Many of the dolphins were killed by collisions with ferry boats or caught in fishing nets.

Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii) in the Rio Nuñez estuary, Guinea, West Africa (photograph by Caroline R. Weir, Ketos
Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii) in the Rio Nuñez estuary, Guinea, West Africa (photograph by Caroline R. Weir, Ketos

Vessel strikes and fishing interactions are examples of the many challenges facing humpback dolphin populations worldwide. Humpback dolphins occupy the coastal waters of some fairly remote and/or logistically difficult to access areas in parts of coastal India, Africa, northern and western Australia, and the coasts of many Southeast Asian countries.  Although some humpback dolphin species live in areas with robust conservation laws, they are threatened by deteriorating habitat due to shipping and coastal development, the oil and gas industry, and fishing interactions. Moreover, some species of this genus live along the coasts of developing countries where there are no laws to protect them, or existing laws are not enforced.

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Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis) in Cleveland Bay, Queensland, Australia (photograph by Isabel L. Beasley, James Cook University)

Compared to our knowledge of common or bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) we know little about humpback dolphins. The taxonomy of the genus was recently revised, and it is now consider that there are four species of humpback dolphins (the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific, and Australian humpback dolphins). In many instances, very little research has been conducted and only limited biological material or scientific knowledge has been obtained. However, dedicated researchers around the world have, often in difficult circumstances, worked to improve our knowledge of the humpback dolphin and its conservation status. Scientific assessments of the current status of these species do not paint a pretty picture – and it seems imperative that conservation measures be taken to protect these fascinating dolphins before populations or even species are lost.

A comprehensive review of the current conservation-related research on humpback dolphins, including recommendations for changes to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List status assessments, comprises volumes 72 and 73 of Advances in Marine Biology. These volumes are intended to form a cornerstone for humpback dolphin conservation and management plans throughout the entire range of the genus.

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Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) off northern Lantau Island, Hong Kong (photograph by Thomas A. Jefferson, Clymene Enterprises)
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Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) off Boushehr Province, Iran, Persian Gulf ( photograph by Hamed Moshiri, courtesy Tim Collins, Wildlife Conservation Society)
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Two Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) surface in front of a vessel retrieving a gillnet in Hong Kong’s western waters. Fishing net entanglement is a major threat to this species throughout its entire range. Photograph: Thomas A. Jefferson, Clymene Enterprises

About the Authors:

thomas a jeffersonThomas A. Jefferson, Ph.D. is a marine mammal biologist and director of Clymene Enterprises, in Lakeside, California. He has been studying marine mammals around the world since 1983, and has traveled widely in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australasia in pursuit of his work. His primary focus is on the population biology and taxonomy of small cetaceans, and their effective conservation.

barbara curryBarbara E. Curry is a Senior Research Scientist in the Physiological Ecology and Bioenergetics Laboratory of University of Central Florida’s Conservation Biology Program. Her research interests include stress and reproductive physiology, energetics, assimilation efficiency and nutritional ecology, with applications to ecosystem-based population management and conservation. Working as a NOAA scientist for nearly ten years, she conducted a wide range of research projects including studies of marine mammal molecular genetics and of the physiological effects of stress in mammals.


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Humpback Dolphins (Sousa spp.): Current Status and Conservation, Part 2 includes updates on many topics that will appeal to postgraduates and researchers in marine biology, fisheries science, ecology, zoology, and biological oceanography.

Humpback Dolphins (Sousa spp.): Current Status and Conservation, Part 1 presents materials that are widely used by managers, students, and academic professionals in the marine sciences.

Marine Mammals of the World, 2nd Edition describes and illustrates newly discovered and rarely photographed species, making it the most comprehensive and up-to-date identification guide available

The original article from Want China Times can be found here.

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