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The Role of Behavior in Marine Mammal Conservation

July 01, 2024 / dolphins,

Human activities have significantly affected all marine mammal species.  From pollution such as  marine debris, chemical and noise pollution, to over fishing and ocean acidification our actions have dramatically altered their landscape.  

Marine mammals exhibit a remarkable diversity in behaviors, social structures, and habitats, showcasing a wide array of unique characteristics.  Given the vast diversity present, a universal conservation approach is not feasible. Incorporating behavioral ecology into conservation initiatives is crucial for understanding the needs of marine mammals, the impact of human activities on them, and the necessary measures to protect them.. 

Understanding the natural behavior of dolphins is the initial key to effective conservation efforts.

  • Communication: Dolphins live in sophisticated social groups or pods which have complex systems of communication involving a combination of acoustic, visual and tactile cues. Dolphins employ a variety of vocalizations: they use whistles, chirps, and squeaks to communicate with each other directly, while clicks are utilized to explore their surroundings. This remarkable ability known as echolocation enables dolphins to navigate and investigate their environment through the use of these clicks.
  • Migration: Many marine mammal populations engage in seasonal migrations to ensure a steady food supply, locate resources, and find optimal settings for mating and birthing.
  • Foraging: Dolphins feed on a wide variety of prey including fish, octopuses, squid, jellyfish, shrimp, and even other marine mammals!  They showcase a wide array of hunting tactics that vary among species and populations, and have been seen passing down these skills to their young. These hunting techniques vary from individuals hunting single fish to coordinated team efforts to hunt schools of fish.  Individuals have been observed using their pectoral flippers or flukes to stun their prey, making it more accessible for them to catch.  Some groups have been documented to strand feed- teaming up to  chase schools of fish into the shallows almost beaching themselves, while others work together to stir up muddy bubble nets trapping their prey inside.  
  • Sociality and Social learning: Dolphin societies consist of numerous individuals forming distinct subgroups. These social animals thrive in intricate and ever-evolving communities, where long-term associations are established among individuals, although not always constant. Dolphins exhibit shared behaviors within groups, suggesting a transfer of knowledge among associated individuals, such as between a mother and her calf.

Marine mammals exhibit remarkable intelligence and problem-solving skills.  As human activities continue to alter their habitats, flexibility and ability to adapt to these changing environments is critical to their survival.  

Identifying and Understanding Normal Behavior


Studying the behavior of wild dolphin populations presents numerous challenges - from their preference for remote and inhospitable habitats to their underwater lifestyle with limited visibility, researchers must navigate the complexities of their environment while also being mindful of how their presence can influence and alter dolphin behavior.

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Researchers utilize extensive surveys, behavioral ethograms, and scientific projects to investigate marine mammals in their natural environments.. Establishing baseline data is crucial in understanding the impact of human interference on their habitats and their subsequent effects on wild dolphin populations. 

Land, sea and air based surveys are used to obtain information on population density, range and distribution, migratory patterns, and habitat use..

Cutting-edge research techniques such as molecular ecology, acoustic and satellite monitoring, remote sensing methods, and advanced photo identification technologies are employed to study the ecology of free-ranging dolphins in their natural habitats. These innovative approaches provide valuable insights into the behavior, population dynamics, and habitat use of these fascinating marine mammals.

To learn more about dolphins behavior read the dolphins facts here and our guidelines on how to interact with dolphins in the wild

Behavior as an Indicator of Health and Well-being
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Dolphins are considered  ‘indicator species’ due to their sensitivity to changes in their environment. Monitoring health and behavior of dolphin populations can offer valuable insight into the overall well-being of the marine ecosystem.  Alterations in their behavior, foraging patterns, or population sizes can serve as critical early warning signs of environmental pressures.  These changes may stem from various factors such as pollution, overfishing, and climate changes.  

Impacts of Human Activities on Marine Mammal Behavior

The gradual development of coastlines poses habitat challenges for marine wildlife, including fishing, coastal urbanization, pollution, and habitat destruction. These changes significantly impact the well-being of marine wildlife.

  • Overfishing:Fish populations are dwindling at an alarming rate worldwide, as they are being caught faster than they can replenish themselves. Our insatiable appetite for seafood, coupled with advancements in fishing technologies, has led to a situation where the oceans are being overexploited. 
  • Coastal urbanization: the more traffic there is in and near the waters, the more disruption there is for marine wildlife. Coastal urbanization is leading to more pollution near the water, greater ship traffic and elements of human interactions with nature in unnatural ways.
  • Pollution: as coastlines become major destinations, runoff introduces pollutants into the water. Dolphins now deal with heavy metals, toxins and plastics in their environment, which leads to ecosystem disruptions. These disruptions can impact their overall well-being, reproductive health and immune systems. But another form of pollution you might not have considered is noise pollution. As industrial activities take over marine areas and ship traffic increases, sonar activities are more challenging for dolphins and they struggle to locate prey and navigate the waters effectively. 
  • Habitat destruction: climate change is further destroying habitats. Some factors contributing to habitat destruction include rising sea temperatures, changing currents, reduction of prey species and ocean acidification. This is changing the entire marine ecosystem and leading to reductions in marine wildlife.

Conservation Strategies Informed by Behavioral Studies

Conservation education is important to help protect marine life and prevent biodiversity loss. Some ways the US has been protecting the dolphin population and preserving their natural behaviors is through these conservation efforts.

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  • Overfishing: Effective management of fisheries is crucial, involving assessments to monitor population levels, implementing gear restrictions to minimize by-catch, setting limits on sizes and catches, and implementing necessary closures to ensure sustainability.
  • Minimizing human interactions with dolphins in the wild: Increasingly, people are interacting with dolphins in their natural habitat, including harassing and feeding them illegally. Educating the public on the dangers of such interactions is an important step toward leaving these mammals to their normal behaviors.
  • Reducing ocean noise: Noise pollution poses a significant threat to marine mammals in the present day. The impact of anthropogenic noises on these animals is evident through observed alterations in their foraging strategies, breeding habits, and vocalizations.  NOAA Fisheries offers on marine mammal acoustic technical guidance.
  • Responding to marine mammal stranding: NOAA Fisheries responds to reports of marine mammal strandings and determines the best course of action. These strandings can provide insights into ocean health.

Education, Community Involvement and Public Awareness

Researchers and scientists are doing all they can to protect the Florida Keys ecosystem to make the oceans a safe, enjoyable place for dolphins and other marine mammals. But they cannot do it alone. No amount of mitigation will overcome the ecological changes happening unless everyone gets involved.

Dolphins Plus is at the forefront of educating the public about marine mammal behavior and ways to protect and conserve this crucial aspect of our unique ecosystem.

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The knowledgeable team at Dolphins Plus takes pride in sharing their expertise through engaging educational field trips and intimate interactions with our dolphin ambassadors. These experiences are carefully crafted to educate and ignite a passion for ocean conservation and stewardship.

You are a crucial part of helping protect marine mammals by spreading the word and doing your part to conserve and protect the unique habitats present in the Florida Keys and beyond. 

Scientists and marine biologists will continue to research dolphin behavior and monitor changes to that behavior. You can learn more about common dolphin behavior by taking part in the Trainer For A Day program. Go behind the scenes and learn more about marine mammal care and training. You can swim with dolphins, prepare fish for feedings, wash buckets and learn directly from our experienced and passionate dolphin trainers. 

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