As apex predators, bottlenose dolphins serve as key sentinel species for monitoring ocean and human health. Their positions in oceanic and coastal ecosystems emphasize their relevance for monitoring the potential impacts of oil and oil dispersants on these fragile systems over both the short term and long term. We have assembled a collaborative team consisting of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students from the University of Central Florida, researchers from Mote Marine Laboratory, and biologists from the Apalachicola Field Laboratory, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute working in conjunction with scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service and National Ocean Service. We have initiated a comprehensive assessment of the current status of bottlenose dolphin communities in Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Sound and Choctawhatchee Bay and have begun to assess the potential impact of the DWH oil spill on their distribution, habitat use, and feeding habits.
Specifically we are conducting photographic identification (photo-ID) determinations of population size and distribution as well as direct assessments of genetic relatedness and feeding ecology. In addition, we have been collecting putative prey species from these same bay systems. Skin/blubber samples collected using biopsy dart sampling of free-swimming dolphins will allow us to combine standard toxicological and enzyme marker assays of blubber, with genetic analysis, stable isotope analysis of skin (to assess feeding ecology and habitat utilization), and fatty acid signature analysis of blubber (feeding ecology) to better understand oil exposure both from direct contact as well as through their food chain. We are also uniquely positioned to respond to both live and dead stranded cetaceans through our involvement with the local marine mammal stranding network and have done so on several occasions. This allows us access for full biological sampling and assessment of cause of death or health problems. Pre- and post-spill knowledge of the spatial and temporal scales of the movements of these animals, population structure, specific habitat utilization and feeding preferences is critical to the eventual interpretation of toxicological and health status. Data from these multiple approaches will enable resource managers to develop predictive models that evaluate response strategies and to integrate the impacts of stressors at all levels of the ecosystem.