Wildlife watchers are being asked to help a University of St Andrews project gain knowledge about bottlenose dolphins by sending photographs taken of the mammals spotted off the coast.
The ‘Citizen Science’ project, launched by a team from the University, aims to help understand changes in movements of the dolphins along the east coasts of both Scotland and England.
Led by Dr Mònica Arso Civil and Professor Philip Hammond, both of the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews, the project is funded by NatureScot and by the Forth and Tay offshore wind developers, Seagreen, Inch Cape and Neart na Gaoithe.
This population of bottlenose dolphins has been monitored since 1989 by SMRU and the University of Aberdeen via boat surveys every summer to find and photograph them in two main areas: the Moray Firth and the Tay Estuary including its adjacent waters of Angus and Fife.
The researchers use photographs to identify individual dolphins based on the nicks, notches and other natural marks on their dorsal fins. Knowing when and where animals are allows the team to estimate how many dolphins there are in the population, their birth and natural mortality rates, and to learn about their movements up and down the coast.
Recent years have seen an increase in sightings of bottlenose dolphins from this population in the Firth of Forth and as far south as the coast of northern England.
Dr Mònica Arso Civil said: “We have been monitoring this population of bottlenose dolphins for 30 years now, which has allowed us to follow individuals, sometimes from birth, as they have gone on to raise their own young. Some of these well-known individuals have been repeatedly seen in areas along the English coast over the last few years.”
One such dolphin, known as Guinness (pictured above), is a female first photographed in 1989 with her then one-year old female calf, Muddy. Regularly seen in the Moray Firth during the 1990s, Guinness was then seen more frequently around the Tay Estuary and St Andrews Bay, where she was last seen in 2015. Photographs were taken by members of the public of Guinness off Tynemouth in 2007, North Sunderland in 2012 and, more recently, off Berwick-upon-Tweed and Flamborough Head in 2018.
Dr Arso Civil added: “While we are not sure exactly why this southward range expansion is happening, if people can help us by sharing photographs they have taken of bottlenose dolphins in areas south of St Andrews Bay and the Tay estuary, we can build up a better picture of the dolphins’ movements over time.
“The pictures could be recent ones, or older photographs taken in the last few years, as these will help fill gaps in the sighting histories of dolphins. We hope this will help us improve the monitoring of this very special population and contribute towards its protection.”
The ‘Citizen Fins’ project invites members of the public to submit photographs of bottlenose dolphins taken in areas south of St Andrews Bay (Fife) currently not systematically surveyed. These photographs should show the dolphin’s dorsal fin so that animals can be identified and matched to the population’s catalogue of individuals.
Identifying which animals are seen in those areas further south will help to improve understanding of the movements of animals along the east coasts of Scotland and England. This will provide important information for monitoring the population, contributing to its continued protection.
The project’s website explains how members of the public can submit their photographs and provides guidelines on what makes a good quality photograph that can be used to identify bottlenose dolphins.
Image caption: Guinness the dolphin taken in 2014 in Tayside.
Figure 1: Bottlenose dolphin mother and calf pair photographed in the Firth of Forth
Figure 2: Guinness photographed in Tayside in 2014
Figure 3. Bottlenose dolphins can be identified from the natural marking in their dorsal fin.