Just Like People, No Two Bottlenose Dolphins Are Genetically Alike
November 5, 2013

Just Like People, No Two Bottlenose Dolphins Are Genetically Alike

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The most common and well-known of their kind, bottlenose dolphins are famous for their roles in movies, television and water parks everywhere. And to the layperson's eye, one bottlenose dolphin might not look any different from another. When you look closer, however, perhaps genetically, there are telltale differences in these creatures.

A new study, published in the Journal of Heredity, focused on groups of bottlenose dolphins that live in specific habitats along the eastern seaboard of the US. The researchers compared these to other populations of bottlenose dolphins that live offshore, in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

The study examined specific populations of bottlenose dolphins that lived within the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) on the east coast of Florida -- which runs from the southern Jupiter Inlet to the Ponce de Leon Inlet to the north. The researchers studied these animals from three perspectives -- habitat, behavioral and genetic -- and received surprising results.

"It certainly took a while for the research to be conducted, data compiled and the findings to be confirmed and published, but it was worth the wait," said Jose Lopez, PhD, a professor at Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center who was with FAU when the study began. "This was truly a collaborative effort, with experts from across the globe participating – and what we found was really fascinating."

The international team of scientists, from such diverse institutions as Nova Southeastern University, Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI,) the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Cornell University; National Institutes of Health (NIH); and the University of Durham in England, conducted this study over a ten year period.

"Overall, this highly collaborative study now establishes a genetic baseline for the IRL dolphin population," explained Steve McCulloch, HBOI MMRC program manager. "It can be used as a foundation for future genetic studies and to assist environmental and stock management of the iconic species."

Within the IRL, the study revealed that there are two different, distinct populations of bottlenose dolphins. These two, genetically different groups were divided along a north-south geographic region of the IRL, the analysis showed. The research revealed more than just a genetic divide among the animals living in the IRL. It also revealed differences when these animals were compared to bottlenose dolphins in other areas, including the open oceanic waters.

"This study shows evidence that while it may appear that the bottlenose dolphins within the IRL look the same, from a genetic – and geographic standpoint – there are differences," Lopez said. "It's akin to the Hatfields and McCoys or Capulet/Montague stories, that is, different families that are unmistakably of the same species, but for whatever reason living apart. As we work to protect the IRL, this study provides baseline data moving forward as we continue to monitor and study the wildlife that call the area home."

The findings provide important management implications, as the role of habitat, and subsequent modifications, directly shape bottlenose dolphin structure.