Saturday, 15 December 2012

WA marine research receives international award

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BottlenoseDolphin“One ‘tool’ used by dolphins is sponging—when they break off a conical marine sponge which fits over their face like a glove to protect their beaks and faces while rummaging”—Dr Allen. Image: Peter NijenhuisDISCOVERING the unique food foraging techniques of Shark Bay’s dolphins is just one project that has won Murdoch University’s Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU) an animal research award.

The MUCRU received the Animal Action Research award at the International Fund for Animal Welfare Action Awards in early December.

Research Fellow Simon Allen says MUCRU covers a whole suite of marine conservation across Western Australia and in other parts of the world including how to reduce fishing trawler bycatch, and novel ways to gather marine data.

“We don’t know if there was a particular project or thrust that facilitated us being nominated in the first place, but we like to think it is collectively as a group,” he says.

“I like to think we are raising the bar in terms of environmental impact assessments being done around the State.”

In one of his research projects, Dr Allen partnered with University of Zurich geneticist Dr Michael Krützen to study bottlenose dolphins in the eastern and western gulf of Shark Bay.

He says the ways in which they feed themselves and their offspring in such a competitive environment is incredible.

“One ‘tool’ used by dolphins is sponging—when they break off a conical marine sponge which fits over their face like a glove to protect their beaks and faces while rummaging.

Dr Allen says sponging was first seen by American researchers in the 90s as the first evidence of tool use in a dolphin subspecies.

“Dr Krützen looked at all the genetic data and found you only become a sponger if your mother was a sponger—it is a cultural transmission of tool use.”

“The genetic samples of all the different dolphin data in the eastern gulf shows only one matriline engages in the sponging behaviour despite the fact there are several matriline that live and forage in this particular area.”

Sponging is only one of 12 different foraging specialisations, which include, beaching and shelling

In another MUCR project, Dr Amanda Hodgson has used military style drones to improve the data received from ariel surveys.

Her Australian-first trial in 2010 saw Unmanned Aerial Vehicle camera systems fly at various heights and air speeds to assess optimal use of the technology.

Three trials on, Dr Hodgson says she is still trying to work out the logistics of how well animals can be spotted in the images according to the different cameras and altitudes flown.

One future research project will include a look at the ‘near threatened’ Snubfin and Humpback Dolphins in the Kimberley region.

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