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Dolphin researchers use St. Johns River as a living laboratory

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They have wingmen and bromances. They fight and make up. They have "complicated" relationships. Sound like the plotline of a soap opera or a reality show?


No, it is just the interpersonal relationships of dolphins playing in the St. Johns River. Alliances are formed and fights are staged - all in the pursuit of sexual liaisons.


One University of North Florida researcher hasn't missed an episode of this natural drama, which is set in the vibrant waters of the First Coast. Dr. Quincy Gibson, the lead biologist for the University of North Florida's dolphin research program, and her team of two UNF graduate students and a rotating cast of more than 50 undergraduates have spent the past few years making intriguing discoveries about the nearly 300 bottlenose dolphins who call Northeast Florida home.


dolphins 1Contrary to previous research, the dolphins in the St. Johns River are year-round residents, and they exhibit some interesting characteristics that set them apart from the majority of other marine mammals.  Most of the male dolphins in the region travel in close-knit duos or trios. Gibson calls it the "dolphin wingman" concept - a rare behavioral structure that's hardly been documented. These groups of males ally themselves with other groups as a means of taking down rivals and securing females - usually through marine warfare. Gibson said these fights can be mighty brutal, with the losers suffering cuts, scratches and the indignity of losing their mates. However, the bonds between the males in these friendships are oftentimes stronger than the relationships they have with female dolphins. Wingman partnerships can even last a lifetime.


"From a science and theory perspective, this is a social structure that's only been documented in one other place in the world - Shark Bay in Western Australia," Gibson said. "This level of complexity is unique to humans and dolphins, and it's happening right here."


A $20,000 gift from the Elizabeth Ordway Dunn Foundation, a South Florida-based foundation focused on environmental and habitat protection, has made Gibson's research possible.  Robert Jensen, president and managing director of the Foundation, said Gibson's application for funding stuck out to Foundation administrators because of the high mortality rate for dolphins in Florida. He said the Foundation usually doesn't fund pure science and research initiatives, but there was a definite need for more analysis of this vulnerable population.


"Dr. Gibson had started to put together this program, and it seemed to us that it was really critical to have more info about dolphins in our state ecosystem, especially at this point in time," Jensen said. "With all of the proposals to expand Jacksonville's port, it was unclear how the dolphin population would be impacted. That's why we felt it was important to support the production of information that could be made available to Florida decision makers about the impact on the marine ecosystem."


Gibson said the Dunn Foundation funding has helped in keeping the dolphin research program literally afloat. Her research was initially supported through the University's Flagship coastal biology program, but additional funds were needed to pay for graduate student assistance and sundry operating costs.


"It's not as simple as just gassing up the boat and heading out onto the river," Gibson said. "That being said, the money helped us pay for that gas and all of the little things we need to do the research the right way."


With the acquisition of the operating costs required in keeping Osprey, the team's 26-foot research boat, moving forward, Gibson and her students were able to focus on acquiring important baseline data during multiple outings on the St. Johns River. The work mostly entails spotting and photographing every bottlenose dolphin they can find. It's actually illegal to detain or capture dolphins, so they can't even tag them to keep tabs on their whereabouts. Instead, Gibson said the team travels to different spots in the St. Johns that act as congregation points for pods of dolphins. Once a research subject is spotted, the team analyzes the different marks and scars on the dolphins' bodies to determine who is who. The most defining characteristics are usually the unique marks on a dolphin's dorsal fin.


Their research so far has focused on an average dolphin's life cycle -the relationships forged between mothers and calves, mortality rates of river dolphins and the development of newborns. Much of this work will be presented at national conferences, and Gibson's two grad students, Jessica Ermak and Samantha Nekolny, will each have a pair of published papers to their name by the time they graduate.

 Nekolny said she chose to attend UNF because of the University's focus on hands-on learning and all the practical experience she would receive while working in the field with the dolphin research program.


"We're out on the boat all the time, getting field research and doing work that only trained professionals are able to do," she said. "By the time I'll graduate, I'll have more time in the field than other job candidates, and that should help me down the road."


Their work has also become increasingly important in the regional environmental conversation, which Nekolny finds particularly rewarding.


"It definitely has more of an impact than the average grad school paper," she said.


Gibson said the proposed dredging of the Jacksonville port's shipping channel to allow for larger boats has made their research extremely important in tracking the health of the St. Johns River ecosystem. It remains unclear how the port expansion could affect the Northeast Florida dolphin population, but it's quite possible that it could cause a large-scale population degradation event. Given the fact that the dolphin population is a solid indicator of a river's overall health, Gibson said she and her students have been out on the river weekly to determine what kind of impact the expansion might have. Much of her data has been presented to the Army Corps of Engineers, which produces environmental impact statements for port expansion projects.


By virtue of being out on the water so often, Gibson said UNF's dolphin research team has also become the de facto dolphin entanglement experts for the region. When an agency spots a dolphins that has become tangled up fishing line or some other man-made item, Gibson is usually called in to assist with the intervention and rescue efforts.


It's yet another way in which the UNF dolphin research program has become a major part of Northeast Florida's environmental community. Gibson said the students who come through the program will have an abundance of hands-on learning experiences that can benefit them in their professional careers.


"Where else can you get this kind of this academic opportunity?" Gibson said. "The river is the perfect laboratory, and the students can do things that out there that seasoned researchers don't often get to do. They're front row for a really dynamic ecosystem, and UNF students are really lucky to have that kind of academic experience."