Evidence of a Small, Island-Associated Population of Common Bottlenose Dolphins in the Mariana Islands

Small, island-associated populations of cetaceans have evolved around numerous oceanic islands, likely due to habitat discontinuities between nearshore and offshore waters. However, little is known about the ecology and structure of cetacean populations around the Mariana Islands, a remote archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean. We present sighting, photo-identification, and genetic data collected during twelve years of surveys around these islands that reveal the existence of a small, island-associated population of bottlenose dolphins. Nearly half of the photo-identified individuals were encountered in more than one year. Both haplotypic and nuclear genetic diversity among sampled individuals was low (haplotypic diversity = 0.701, nuclear heterozygosity = 0.658), suggesting low abundance. We used mark-recapture analysis of photo-identification data to estimate yearly abundance in the southern portion of the population’s range from 2011 to 2018. Each abundance estimate was less than 54 individuals, with each upper 95% confidence interval below 100. Additional survey effort is necessary to generate a full population abundance estimate. We found extensive introgression of Fraser’s dolphin DNA into both the mitochondrial and nuclear genomes of the population, suggesting at least two hybridization events more than two generations in the past. The Mariana Islands are used extensively by the U.S. military for land and sea training operations. Thus, this unique bottlenose dolphin population likely faces high exposure to multiple threats.

Citation:

Martien, K.K., M.C. Hill, F.I. Archer, R.W. Baird, A.R. Bendlin, L. Dolar, A.D. Ligon, E.M. Oleson, K.M. Robertson, S.M. Woodman, A.C. Ü, K.M. Yano, and A.L. Bradford. 2024. Evidence of a Small, Island-Associated Population of Common Bottlenose Dolphins in the Mariana Islands. Frontiers in Marine Science 10: 1254959. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2023.1254959

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