Sarasota Bay is home to the longest-running observational study of marine mammals in the world. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), run by Dr. Randy Wells of the Chicago Zoological Societyand Mote Marine Laboratory, have been collecting observational and photographic data from bottlenosed dolphins in Sarasota Bay continually for over thirty years (Wells and Scott, 2002). The SDRP has provided an excellent natural laboratory for researchers from fields as diverse as physiology, ecology, behavior, acoustics, genetics and population dynamics, and has greatly increased our understanding of the biology of wild dolphin populations.
While the SDRP has resulted in a great deal of data regarding the population structure and movement patterns of bottlenose dolphins around Sarasota Bay, population structure in the rest of the Gulf of Mexico remains poorly understood. The large number of estuarine habitats and apparently continuous distribution of animals along the Gulf coast has made the definition of management units very difficult. Genetic analyses using some of the analytical methods developed by the Population Identity Program hold promise as the fastest way to gain information about the population structure of bottlenose dolphins throughout the Gulf of Mexico. SWFSC researchers Karen Martien and Barbara Taylor have been working with Randy Wells and collaborators Anna Sellas and Patty Rosel, both from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center's Charleston, NC, laboratory, to investigate new analytical approaches to uncovering bottlenose dolphin population structure along the Gulf coast.
Because their population structure is so well documented (Wells 1986, 1994; Urian, 2002; Sellas 2002), the dolphins in and around Sarasota Bay make an excellent study system for testing new analytical methods. The "correct" answer is already known, so a method can be judged on the basis of whether or not it gets the population structure "right." Martien et al. (2003) have used the analytical program Boundary Rank to analyze genetic data from the area around Sarasota Bay and found that Boundary Rank did indeed get the "right" answer, indicating that it may be a useful method for investigating bottlenose dolphin population structure in other parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
Martien, Karen K., Anna B. Sellas, Patricia E. Rosel, Barbara L. Taylor and Randall. S. Wells. 2003. Analysis of Gulf of Mexico Bottlenose Dolphin Stock Structure. Final report to Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution Protect Wild Dolphins.
Sellas, A.B. 2002. Population structure and group relatedness of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the coastal Gulf of Mexico using mitochondrial DNA and nuclear microsatellite markers. M. Sc. Thesis, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Urian, K.W. 2002. Community structure of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Tampa Bay, Florida, USA. M.Sc. thesis, University of North Carolina, Wilmington. 26 pp.
Wells, R.S. 1986. Population structure of bottlenose dolphins: Behavioral studies of bottlenose dolphins along the central west coast of Florida. Contract Rept. to National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Center. Contr. No. 45-WCNF-5-00366.
Wells, R.S. 1994. Determination of bottlenose dolphin stock discreteness: Application of a combined behavioral and genetic approach, p.16-20. In: K.R. Wang, P.M. Payne, and V.G. Thayer (compilers), Coastal Stock(s) of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin: Status Review and Management. Proceedings and Recommendations from a Workshop held in Beaufort, NC, 13-14 September 1993. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-4.
Wells, R.S. and M.D. Scott. 2002. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus and T. aduncus). Pp. 122-128 In: W.F. Perrin, B. Würsig, and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds., Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. 122-128 In: W.F. Perrin, B. Wals. In W.F. Perrin, B. W