From the poles to the equator, marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales, play an important role in global ecosystems as apex predators, ecosystem engineers and even organic ocean fertilisers. The ocean off the coast of South Africa is home to a high diversity of these mammals and is recognised as a global marine biodiversity hotspot.
Marine mammals are often referred to as “sentinels” of ocean health. Numerous studies have explored the effects of both noise and chemical pollution, habitat degradation, changes in climate and food webs on these marine apex predators. Yet the interplay of these factors isn’t well understood.
Our research on the unfortunate dolphins incidentally caught in shark nets off South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast has helped fill in some of the gaps. By assessing the health of these dolphins we have provided valuable baseline information on conditions affecting coastal dolphin populations in South Africa. This is the first systematic health assessment in incidentally caught dolphins in the Southern Hemisphere.
But to gain a fuller picture of the health of marine mammals in these waters I am now combining this contemporary field research with historical data, like the collection at the Port Elizabeth Museum Bayworld.
The combination of data on diet, reproduction, population structure and health helps us gain a better understanding of the pressures and changes these apex predator populations face. And it helps us understand it in relation to global change, including both climate change and pressures brought about by human behaviour.
My research sheds light on multiple factors: pollutant levels, parasites, and availability of prey, all have an impact on individuals as well as populations.
Understanding the health of these animals also gives us insight into the state of the world’s oceans. This is relevant because oceans affect the entire ecosystem including food security, climate and people’s health. This degree of connectedness is highlighted by recent discoveries about how whales act as ecosystem engineers.
The accumulation of this knowledge is important because the planet’s oceans aren’t being protected. Recent popular documentaries such as “Sonic Sea” and “Plastic Ocean” have highlighted their exploitation and pollution.
Without baseline knowledge it’s challenging to establish the potential effects that new anthropogenic developments (those caused by human behaviour) have on local whale and dolphin populations.
For example, we know that whales are sensitive to shipping noise, so what potential impact could a new deep water port have on mothers and their calves? Could it drive them away from these nursery areas, or could it lead to an increased risk of whales and ships colliding? To answer this and monitor the change that a new port brings with it, we are investigating the soundscape of two bays in the Eastern Cape (one with a new port, one without) in parallel with baleen whale mother-calf behaviour.
Another example is understanding how changes in the Sardine run over the past 15 years have affected the diets of these mammals. The Sardine run is an annual phenomenon when large shoals of Sardine migrate northwards along the coast into KwaZulu-Natal waters to spawn. Using long-term data and samples from the Port Elizabeth Museum research collection, we have been able to establish that over the the past 20 or so years the main predator in the Sardine run – the long-beaked common dolphin – has shifted its diet to mackerel. Although such changes in diet can have potential impacts on the health of the dolphins, parallel investigations on the trophic level these animals feed at (using isotope data from teeth) and the body condition of the dolphins (using long-term data on blubber thickness), indicated no adverse effects to the dolphins.
Our analysis highlights how marine mammals may be used as indicators of environmental change and why research is important.
Finding answers to intricate questions on environmental change is not always easy. But a better understanding and knowledge of the environment these animals live in has to be incorporated into studies contributing to their conservation and management. Such studies are becoming increasingly relevant as they highlight the fast degradation of the marine environment.
For example, a recent study identified antibiotic resistant bacteria in both sea water samples and exhaled breath samples from killer whales. This suggests that the marine environment has been contaminated with human waste which in turn has significant medical implications for humans.
Gaining such information is particularly important given the rapid changes taking place in the oceans, such as those on South Africa’s southern and eastern coastline. This includes increasing coastal development, new deep water ports being built or expanded, and parts of the deep sea being explored for oil and gas.
To assess these changes and what they mean for the environment, baseline studies need to be carried out so that potential effects can be assessed. Whales and dolphins are increasingly being recognised as indicators of ocean health in this endeavour.
And a continuation of the research we did on dolphins caught in nets will help document the cyclic changes that can be seen as normal variation in a population. This could prove important for assessing future catastrophic events, such as the Deep Horizon oil spill.
The oceans absorb over 25% of the world’s carbon pollution as well as heat generated by global warming. They also produce at least 50% of the planet’s oxygen, and are home to 80% of all life on earth. Yet only 5% of this vital component of our planet has been explored.
Research on whales and dolphins contributes important knowledge about ocean health. Historical data increasingly provides a guideline to teasing out natural variations in populations and assessing the contribution that multiple factors have on these animals. In time, this will ensure that policy makers are being given sound scientific information. It will also provide us with a good barometer of the overall health of our oceans.