Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Dolphin


On 9 June 2008, the UK’s largest mass stranding event (MSE) of short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) occurred in Falmouth Bay, Cornwall. At least 26 dolphins died, and a similar number was refloated/herded back to sea. On necropsy, all dolphins were in good nutritive status with empty stomachs and no evidence of known infectious disease or acute physical injury. Auditory tissues were grossly normal (26/26) but had microscopic haemorrhages (5/5) and mild otitis media (1/5) in the freshest cases. Five lactating adult dolphins, one immature male, and one immature female tested were free of harmful algal toxins and had low chemical pollutant levels. Pathological evidence of mud/seawater inhalation (11/26), local tide cycle, and the relative lack of renal myoglobinuria (26/26) suggested MSE onset on a rising tide between 06∶30 and 08∶21 hrs (9 June). Potential causes excluded or considered highly unlikely included infectious disease, gas/fat embolism, boat strike, by-catch, predator attack, foraging unusually close to shore, chemical or algal toxin exposure, abnormal weather/climatic conditions, and high-intensity acoustic inputs from seismic airgun arrays or natural sources (e.g., earthquakes). International naval exercises did occur in close proximity to the MSE with the most intense part of the exercises (including mid-frequency sonars) occurring four days before the MSE and resuming with helicopter exercises on the morning of the MSE. The MSE may therefore have been a “two-stage process” where a group of normally pelagic dolphins entered Falmouth Bay and, after 3-4 days in/around the Bay, a second acoustic/disturbance event occurred causing them to strand en masse. This spatial and temporal association with the MSE, previous associations between naval activities and cetacean MSEs, and an absence of other identifiable factors known to cause cetacean MSEs, indicates naval activity to be the most probable cause of the Falmouth Bay MSE.

Concepts: Disease, Infectious disease, Causality, Pathology, Infection, Toxin, Dolphin, Porpoise


Organochlorine (OC) pesticides and the more persistent polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have well-established dose-dependent toxicities to birds, fish and mammals in experimental studies, but the actual impact of OC pollutants on European marine top predators remains unknown. Here we show that several cetacean species have very high mean blubber PCB concentrations likely to cause population declines and suppress population recovery. In a large pan-European meta-analysis of stranded (n = 929) or biopsied (n = 152) cetaceans, three out of four species:- striped dolphins (SDs), bottlenose dolphins (BNDs) and killer whales (KWs) had mean PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal PCB toxicity thresholds. Some locations (e.g. western Mediterranean Sea, south-west Iberian Peninsula) are global PCB “hotspots” for marine mammals. Blubber PCB concentrations initially declined following a mid-1980s EU ban, but have since stabilised in UK harbour porpoises and SDs in the western Mediterranean Sea. Some small or declining populations of BNDs and KWs in the NE Atlantic were associated with low recruitment, consistent with PCB-induced reproductive toxicity. Despite regulations and mitigation measures to reduce PCB pollution, their biomagnification in marine food webs continues to cause severe impacts among cetacean top predators in European seas.

Concepts: Mediterranean Sea, Europe, Spain, Polychlorinated biphenyl, Dolphin, Cetacea, Whale, Marine mammals


Delphinids produce large numbers of short duration, broadband echolocation clicks which may be useful for species classification in passive acoustic monitoring efforts. A challenge in echolocation click classification is to overcome the many sources of variability to recognize underlying patterns across many detections. An automated unsupervised network-based classification method was developed to simulate the approach a human analyst uses when categorizing click types: Clusters of similar clicks were identified by incorporating multiple click characteristics (spectral shape and inter-click interval distributions) to distinguish within-type from between-type variation, and identify distinct, persistent click types. Once click types were established, an algorithm for classifying novel detections using existing clusters was tested. The automated classification method was applied to a dataset of 52 million clicks detected across five monitoring sites over two years in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). Seven distinct click types were identified, one of which is known to be associated with an acoustically identifiable delphinid (Risso’s dolphin) and six of which are not yet identified. All types occurred at multiple monitoring locations, but the relative occurrence of types varied, particularly between continental shelf and slope locations. Automatically-identified click types from autonomous seafloor recorders without verifiable species identification were compared with clicks detected on sea-surface towed hydrophone arrays in the presence of visually identified delphinid species. These comparisons suggest potential species identities for the animals producing some echolocation click types. The network-based classification method presented here is effective for rapid, unsupervised delphinid click classification across large datasets in which the click types may not be known a priori.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Animal echolocation, Mexico, Gulf of Mexico, Dolphin, Sonar, Names of large numbers, Oceanic dolphins


Understanding the mechanisms that drive prey selection is a major challenge in foraging ecology. Most studies of foraging strategies have focused on behavioural costs, and have generally failed to recognize that differences in the quality of prey may be as important to predators as the costs of acquisition. Here, we tested whether there is a relationship between the quality of diets (kJ·g(-1)) consumed by cetaceans in the North Atlantic and their metabolic costs of living as estimated by indicators of muscle performance (mitochondrial density, n = 60, and lipid content, n = 37). We found that the cost of living of 11 cetacean species is tightly coupled with the quality of prey they consume. This relationship between diet quality and cost of living appears to be independent of phylogeny and body size, and runs counter to predictions that stem from the well-known scaling relationships between mass and metabolic rates. Our finding suggests that the quality of prey rather than the sheer quantity of food is a major determinant of foraging strategies employed by predators to meet their specific energy requirements. This predator-specific dependence on food quality appears to reflect the evolution of ecological strategies at a species level, and has implications for risk assessment associated with the consequences of changing the quality and quantities of prey available to top predators in marine ecosystems.

Concepts: Evolution, Metabolism, Predation, Ecology, Optimal foraging theory, Dolphin, Cetacea, Whale


Annually in Japanese waters, small cetaceans are killed in “drive hunts” with quotas set by the government of Japan. The Taiji Fishing Cooperative in Japan has published the details of a new killing method that involves cutting (transecting) the spinal cord and purports to reduce time to death. The method involves the repeated insertion of a metal rod followed by the plugging of the wound to prevent blood loss into the water. To date, a paucity of data exists regarding these methods utilized in the drive hunts. Our veterinary and behavioral analysis of video documentation of this method indicates that it does not immediately lead to death and that the time to death data provided in the description of the method, based on termination of breathing and movement, is not supported by the available video data. The method employed causes damage to the vertebral blood vessels and the vascular rete from insertion of the rod that will lead to significant hemorrhage, but this alone would not produce a rapid death in a large mammal of this type. The method induces paraplegia (paralysis of the body) and death through trauma and gradual blood loss. This killing method does not conform to the recognized requirement for “immediate insensibility” and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.

Concepts: Spinal cord, Blood, Blood vessel, Developed country, Bleeding, Japan, Dolphin, Government of Japan


Most marine mammal- strandings coincident with naval sonar exercises have involved Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris). We recorded animal movement and acoustic data on two tagged Ziphius and obtained the first direct measurements of behavioural responses of this species to mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar signals. Each recording included a 30-min playback (one 1.6-s simulated MFA sonar signal repeated every 25 s); one whale was also incidentally exposed to MFA sonar from distant naval exercises. Whales responded strongly to playbacks at low received levels (RLs; 89-127 dB re 1 µPa): after ceasing normal fluking and echolocation, they swam rapidly, silently away, extending both dive duration and subsequent non-foraging interval. Distant sonar exercises (78-106 dB re 1 µPa) did not elicit such responses, suggesting that context may moderate reactions. The observed responses to playback occurred at RLs well below current regulatory thresholds; equivalent responses to operational sonars could elevate stranding risk and reduce foraging efficiency.

Concepts: Mammal, Animal echolocation, Dolphin, Sonar, Submarine, Whale, Georges Cuvier, Cuvier's beaked whale


Encephalization, or brain expansion, underpins humans' sophisticated social cognition, including language, joint attention, shared goals, teaching, consensus decision-making and empathy. These abilities promote and stabilize cooperative social interactions, and have allowed us to create a ‘cognitive’ or ‘cultural’ niche and colonize almost every terrestrial ecosystem. Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains. Here, by evaluating a comprehensive database of brain size, social structures and cultural behaviours across cetacean species, we ask whether cetacean brains are similarly associated with a marine cultural niche. We show that cetacean encephalization is predicted by both social structure and by a quadratic relationship with group size. Moreover, brain size predicts the breadth of social and cultural behaviours, as well as ecological factors (diversity of prey types and to a lesser extent latitudinal range). The apparent coevolution of brains, social structure and behavioural richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates. Our results suggest that cetacean social cognition might similarly have arisen to provide the capacity to learn and use a diverse set of behavioural strategies in response to the challenges of social living.Cetaceans show a similar increase in brain size as is seen in human evolution. Here, this increase is shown to be linked to an expansion in the social and ecological niche.

Concepts: Psychology, Brain, Ecology, Sociology, Mammal, Dolphin, Cetacea, Whale


South Africa is reputed to host the world’s largest remaining population of white sharks, yet no studies have accurately determined a population estimate based on mark-recapture of live individuals. We used dorsal fin photographs (fin IDs) to identify white sharks in Gansbaai, South Africa, from January 2007 - December 2011. We used the computer programme DARWIN to catalogue and match fin IDs of individuals; this is the first study to successfully use the software for white shark identification. The programme performed well despite a number of individual fins showing drastic changes in dorsal fin shape over time. Of 1682 fin IDs used, 532 unique individuals were identified. We estimated population size using the open-population POPAN parameterisation in Program MARK, which estimated the superpopulation size at 908 (95% confidence interval 808-1008). This estimated population size is considerably larger than those described at other aggregation areas of the species and is comparable to a previous South African population estimate conducted 16 years prior. Our assessment suggests the species has not made a marked recovery since being nationally protected in 1991. As such, additional international protection may prove vital for the long-term conservation of this threatened species.

Concepts: Statistics, Africa, Fish, South Africa, Computer program, White people, Dolphin, Shark


Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are a group of mammals adapted to various aquatic habitats, from oceans to freshwater rivers. We report the sequencing, de novo assembly and analysis of a finless porpoise genome, and the re-sequencing of an additional 48 finless porpoise individuals. We use these data to reconstruct the demographic history of finless porpoises from their origin to the occupation into the Yangtze River. Analyses of selection between marine and freshwater porpoises identify genes associated with renal water homeostasis and urea cycle, such as urea transporter 2 and angiotensin I-converting enzyme 2, which are likely adaptations associated with the difference in osmotic stress between ocean and rivers. Our results strongly suggest that the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoises are reproductively isolated from other porpoise populations and harbor unique genetic adaptations, supporting that they should be considered a unique incipient species.

Concepts: Gene, Genetics, Mammal, Population genetics, Dolphin, Cetacea, Whale, Porpoise


We report five new specimens of xenorophid dolphins from North and South Carolina. Four of the specimens represent the xenorophid Albertocetus meffordorum, previously only known from the holotype skull. The other is a fragmentary petrosal from the upper Oligocene Belgrade Formation that we refer to Echovenator sp, indicating at least two xenorophids from that unit. Two of the Albertocetus meffordorum specimens are from the lower Oligocene Ashley Formation: 1) a partial skeleton with neurocranium, fragmentary mandible, ribs, vertebrae, and chevrons, and 2) an isolated braincase. The partial vertebral column indicates that Albertocetus retained the ancestral morphology and locomotory capabilities of basilosaurid archaeocetes, toothed mysticetes, and physeteroids, and caudal vertebrae that are as wide as tall suggest that the caudal peduncle, which occurs in all extant Cetacea, was either wide or lacking. CT data from the isolated braincase were used to generate a digital endocast of the cranial cavity. The estimated EQ of this specimen is relatively high for an Oligocene odontocete, and other aspects of the brain, such as its anteroposterior length and relative size of the temporal lobe, are intermediate in morphology between those of extant cetaceans and terrestrial artiodactyls. Ethmoturbinals are also preserved, and are similar in morphology and number to those described for the Miocene odontocete Squalodon. These fossils extend the temporal range of Albertocetus meffordorum into the early Oligocene, its geographic range into South Carolina, and expand our paleobiological understanding of the Xenorophidae.

Concepts: Temporal lobe, Skull, Vertebra, Intervertebral disc, Dolphin, Cetacea, Toothed whale, Archaeoceti