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Patterns of Association and Distribution of Estuarine-resident Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops Truncatus) in North Carolina, USA

December 06, 2023

More information needed to evaluate stock structure of estuarine-resident common dolphins in North Carolina.

The social structure of estuarine-resident bottlenose dolphins is complex and varied. Residing in habitats often utilized for resource exploitation, dolphins are at risk due to anthropogenic pressures while still federally protected. Effective conservation is predicated upon accurate abundance estimates. In North Carolina, two estuarine-resident stocks (demographically independent groups) of common bottlenose dolphin have been designated using spatiotemporal criteria. Both stocks are subjected to bycatch in fishing gear. The southern North Carolina estuarine stock was estimated at less than 200 individuals from surveys in 2006, which is outdated per U.S. guidelines. Thus, we conducted a new capture-mark-recapture survey in 2018, identifying 547 distinct individuals, about three times higher than the prior abundance estimate. We compared those individuals to our long-term photo-identification catalog (1995–2018, n = 2,423 individuals), matching 228 individuals. Of those 228, 65 were also included in the 2013 abundance estimate for the northern North Carolina estuarine stock. Using sighting histories for all individuals in the long-term catalog, we conducted a social network analysis, which is independent of a priori stock assignments. The three primary clusters identified were inconsistent with current stock designations and not defined by spatiotemporal distribution. All three clusters had sighting histories in the estuary and on the coast, however, that with the highest within-cluster associations appeared to use estuarine waters more often. The within-cluster association strength was low for one cluster, possibly due to only part of that cluster inhabiting the southern North Carolina estuarine system. Between-cluster differences occurred in infestation rates by the pseudostalked barnacle, Xenobalanus globicipitis, but that did not predict clusters. We suggest the need to re-evaluate the stock structure of estuarine-resident common bottlenose dolphins in North Carolina and currently have insufficient information to assign an abundance estimate to a currently designated stock.

Hohn A. A., A. M. Gorgone, B. L. Byrd, K. W. Shertzer, T. Eguchi (2022) Patterns of association and distribution of estuarine-resident common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in North Carolina, USA. PLoS ONE 17(8): e0270057. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0270057

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on 12/06/2023