Saturday, December 03, 2005

New dolphin program worth a good look

OVER the next few years, Bayworld’s dolphin programme looks set to be transformed under the expert eye of newly appointed marine mammologist Dr Stephanie Plön.

She is on a three-year contract, funded from the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality’s R3-million grant for the dolphin programme.

Plön, 35, who was born and schooled in Germany but studied in Wales, South Africa and New Zealand, is an expert on the biology of pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, but her research includes the life histories and conservation genetics of all whales and dolphins.

In collaboration with other scientists both here and overseas, Plön’s role is to establish a sound scientific platform for the future dolphin programme.

She will also advise on captive breeding, including artificial insemination, and the compatibility between different dolphin species.

“Bayworld only has two dolphins (Domino and Dumisa), but dolphins are social animals. To create a healthy environment, we need to have a healthy group,” she said.

Plön has also been tasked with assessing Bayworld’s extensive marine mammal collection, which consists of preserved animals and tissue, bones and teeth. It is believed to be one of the largest such collections in the world.

She will also be starting her own research programme on the rich marine mammal fauna off the Eastern Cape coast.

The self-professed “water baby” was first introduced to the museum complex as an honours student from the University of Wales (Swansea) working on a three-month research project on the rare mass stranding of common dolphins along the wild coast under Dr Vic Cockcroft, who left the complex in 1998.

“I always wanted this job, but I never dreamed of having it,” said Plön.

She returned to South Africa to complete a master’s degree at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, specialising in pygmy and dwarf sperm whales. “South Africa has the second highest stranding rate in the world (after the US) for both species.”

Plön said the last research on the basic biology (which includes age, diet and reproductive habits) of the two species had been carried out by Cockcroft’s predecessor, Dr Graham Ross, in 1979.
Her master’s research, which won her awards at European Cetacean Society conferences in 1997 and 1999, was so vast that it was upgraded to a PhD degree, and Plön accepted an invitation to complete part of her degree in a specialised genetics laboratory at New Zealand’s University of Auckland.

After obtaining her doctorate in zoology from Rhodes University this year, she worked as a research manager and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Auckland before returning to the Eastern Cape.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"