50 years of learning from the bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay
The staff, students, and collaborating scientists of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP) engage in research, conservation, and education/outreach activities to benefit cetaceans in Sarasota Bay, Florida, and elsewhere around the world. The SDRP conducts the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population, initiated in 1970. Information available from five decades of research on the multi-decadal, multi-generational, year-round resident community of individually identifiable bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay established this as a unique natural laboratory for learning about the biology, behavior, ecology, social structure, health, and communication of dolphins, as well as the effects of human activities on them. Long-term study is crucial for understanding the lives of members of long-lived species such as bottlenose dolphins, and for being able to detect trends in populations relative to changes in their environment. Knowing the long-term geographic range of a population unit allows the measurement of exposure to threats, which in turn facilitates mitigation, including direct interventions. The ability to observe identifiable individual dolphins of known sex, age, and familial relationships through all of their life history milestones and associated transitions in behavioral and social patterns, to collect data on health and condition, and to then document their reproductive success and cause of death is rare in cetacean research. These long-term datasets have established the Sarasota dolphins as a reference population for comparisons to more at-risk populations, such as those impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, leading to better understanding of human impacts. In Sarasota Bay, the human population and numbers of boats have quadrupled over the past five decades. Characterizing dolphin responses to human activities and environmental changes is necessary for providing appropriate and adequate protection measures for the dolphins to allow them to survive and thrive in Sarasota Bay and elsewhere.