Sunday, April 19, 2009

Experts learn a lot from rare dolphin specie

A preliminary study on Australia’s mysterious snubfin dolphin has given researchers new insight into the mammal’s habits and behaviour, including that it uses an extraordinary spitting technique to catch prey.

The research, funded by ING DIRECT, has given an overview of the life and habits of this very rare marine mammal, affectionately named ‘snubby’ by researchers, which lives in tight-knit social groups along the northern coastlines of Australia.

The small dolphins hunt in groups and use a spitting technique to catch their prey - chasing fish to the surface of the water, and rounding them up by shooting jets of water from their mouths, said WWF-Australia’s Marine and Coasts Manager Lydia Gibson.

“This is incredibly unusual behaviour, first seen in Australia off the Kimberley Coast, has only been noted before in Irrawaddy dolphins, which are closely related to this species,” Gibson said. “It also confirms the snubfin dolphin is a fascinating animal, one which we know so little about.”

Gibson said the WWF/ING DIRECT research has been collating existing information from many sightings over the years while also gathering new valuable data about snubfin habitats across northern Australia.

The ten key findings from the research so far show that:

• Threats to mangrove systems from rising sea levels predicted with climate change and from human impacts such as dam construction, dredging and other destructive activities are the greatest threat to the snubfin. Where mangrove systems are destroyed or damaged, the snubfins will lose their food and their habitat/home.

• Snubfins are very susceptible to chemical pollution, viruses and bacteria because they live close to shore and have a relatively small range. A parasite found in cat faeces (Toxoplasma gondii) is of particular concern, as it was found - via contaminated run-off - to be the cause of death of three Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins recovered around Townsville in the period 2000-2001.

• Snubfin dolphins are more likely than other dolphins to be caught in gill nets because they prefer inshore estuarine habitats where river-nets are set.

• Snubfin families appear to spend much of their lives in very small territories close to shore. This means snubfin populations can be heavily impacted by habitat destruction and unsustainable development.

“These top ten facts were uncovered to better understand what we do and do not know about the snubfin dolphin. They will provide us with the benchmark we need to inform conservationists, government and scientists about how best to conserve and manage this unique and threatened species for future generations.”

Ms Gibson said that habitat destruction was the key threat to these coastal dolphins.

“There are already development proposals around the Great Barrier Reef that could affect their habitat – like the extension of the Townsville Port – that could have major impacts on these species. We must work with all relevant stakeholders to initiate a strategic environment assessment of future developments close to snubfin habitats.”

Australia’s largest online bank, ING DIRECT, joined WWF-Australia’s flagship species conservation program to help fund research into the snubfin dolphin, primarily in Queensland.

“We are even more proud now that we have been able to help researchers uncover a range of remarkable facts and insights that may help preserve this remarkable creature long into the future,” said Christian Bohlke, ING DIRECT Head of Branding and Communications.

ING DIRECT’s funded research has not only given insights into the, until now, secret lives of these dolphins, it has also revealed the threats they face from man.

“This overview sets the stage for the ongoing research needed to help us discover ways to minimise our impact on these unique Australian creatures. Companies like ING DIRECT that fund this research are helping us preserve an extraordinary creature and are building a legacy that will be enjoyed by Australians for generations to come,” Bohlke said.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

About 80 whales and Bottlenose dolphins beached themselves

Whales lie along a stretch of beach in WA's South-West following a mass beaching.

Whales lie along a stretch of beach in WA's South-West following a mass beaching. Photo: Tim Brown,

A new fear has surfaced around a pod of whales stranded on a WA beach, with several dead whales washing up this morning with bite marks.

The Department of Environment and Conservation has warned rescue volunteers who have rushed to the area - who are already battling rough seas and strong rips - to stay out of the water, amid fears the dead mammals have attracted sharks.

Around 80 whales, thought to have been false killer whales, now identified as long-finned pilot whales, are stranded along the coastline of Hamelin Bay, WA.

The Augusta-Margaret River Mail reports rescuers are attempting to release 11 surviving long-finned pilot whales into Flinders Bay in South-West WA this morning after about 80 whales and bottlenose dolphins beached themselves over six kilometres of coast at Hamelin Bay, south of Margaret River, yesterday.

About 55 were found dead yesterday and 14 died overnight, leaving 11 survivors including a mother and baby.

Another nine whales washed up dead at Hamelin Bay this morning, with some showing bite marks.

About 100 people hurried to the site yesterday, including volunteers, Department of Environment and Conservation crew, police, vets and scientists.

The whales were in varying states of injury and stress, and it was decided to move them by truck to the calmer conditions of Flinders Bay to release them together in a pod.

The whales, originally thought to have been false killer whales, were identified and confirmed as long-finned pilot whales by DEC marine mammal specialist Doug Coughran, when he arrived at the site yesterday afternoon.

Both species are very similar in colouring and identification characteristics.

Laura Sinclair of the DEC information services unit said there had been some difficulty accessing some whales in a rocky area.

Carcass disposal operations using trucks filled with wet sand and foam mattresses have also begun to remove the dead whales from the beach.

Sergeant Andy Allison of Augusta police attended Hamelin Bay yesterday to conduct traffic management and crowd control.

He reported some verbal abuse towards DEC and Augusta-Margaret River Shire staff who had closed the access to the beach except to volunteers with the required equipment, such as boots to cope with cold night conditions in the water.

"People need to look at the bigger picture," he said.

Flinders Bay access was also shut down so the rescue operations could be carried out more easily.

Between 1984 and 2005 there were 21 mass strandings of whales and dolphins along the coast of WA, mostly between Busselton and Augusta.

In April 2005, 19 Long-Finned Pilot Whales were stranded in Busselton, while in June 2005, followed by 123 False Killer Whales stranded in the same area.

In 1986 a rescue of false killer whales in Augusta made world news.

Of a school of 114 whales, 96 survived and were returned safely back into the ocean.

Augusta-Margaret River Mail

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"