Conservation news

Underwater cameras let scientists dive beneath the surface with dolphins

  • Using custom-made, noninvasive underwater cameras that they attached directly to the dolphins’ bodies, researchers with the University of Sydney and the University of Alaska Southeast captured more than 500 minutes of footage, allowing them to observe behaviors that humans rarely have the privilege of witnessing.
  • The study’s lead author, Heidi Pearson, a dolphin specialist and assistant professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast, said that the cameras provide such a fine degree of information that they could open up whole new avenues of research for protecting endangered species.
  • While the cameras themselves may represent the cutting-edge in technology, Pearson and team attached them to eight wild dusky dolphins off the coast of New Zealand with the aid of decidedly low-tech implements: a long pole and some Velcro pads.

For the first time ever, scientists have been able to observe what life is really like for dolphins beneath the ocean’s surface.

Using custom-made, noninvasive underwater cameras that they attached directly to the dolphins’ bodies, researchers with the University of Sydney and the University of Alaska Southeast captured more than 500 minutes of footage, allowing them to observe behaviors that humans rarely have the privilege of witnessing, including mothers interacting with their calves and other intimate moments shared between dolphins, such as when they rub their flippers together.

The results of the study testing the cameras were detailed in the journal Marine Biology in February.

The study’s lead author, Heidi Pearson, a dolphin specialist and assistant professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast, said that the cameras provide such a fine degree of information that they could open up whole new avenues of research for protecting endangered species.a

“From the surface, researchers can only see about 10 percent of what is going on in an animal’s life. With these video cameras, we can ‘see’ from the animals’ perspective and begin to understand the challenges they face as they move throughout their habitat,” Pearson said in a statement.

“For example, in marine areas subjected to high degrees of human disturbance such as shipping or coastal development, the ability to collect data from the animal’s perspective will be critical in understanding how and to what extent these stressors affect an animal’s ability to feed, mate, and raise young.”

While the cameras themselves may represent the cutting-edge in technology, Pearson and team attached them to eight wild dusky dolphins off the coast of New Zealand with the aid of decidedly low-tech implements: a long pole and some Velcro pads. Suction cups kept the cameras secured to the dolphins’ bodies for the duration of their six-hour battery life. Each camera was equipped with GPS trackers and depth recorders to supplement the information captured on video.

You can watch the scientists deploying the cameras from their boat, as well as some of the underwater footage they captured, in this video:

“Dolphins were observed to show limited reactions to biologger attachment attempts and deployments,” the team notes in the study. “Social and environmental parameters derived from video footage include conspecific body condition, mother-calf spatial positioning, affiliative behavior, sexual behavior, sociability, prey, and habitat type.”

Having the ability to record dolphin behaviors and other life events from the dolphin’s perspective in their natural habitat underwater will provide new insights into the conservation and rehabilitation status, socioecology, and welfare of the species, the researchers add. But, though the dolphins don’t seem to mind the cameras, attaching the devices to the cetaceans was no simple task, according to Peter Jones, a study co-author with the University of Sydney’s School of Electrical and Information Engineering.

“One challenge of doing this research on small and fast animals like dusky dolphins is that there is limited surface area on the dolphin’s body for tag attachment, so there’s only a small window of time to actually deploy the tag as the dolphin swims past,” Jones said. “We have much to learn about animal behaviour and systems such as this are a great way to observe their activity in a natural environment with the least likely influence on that behaviour.”

As top predators, dolphins are considered to be “biomonitors” of marine environments, per Gabriel Machovsky-Capuska, a study co-author with the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science. Gaining new insight into dolphins’ lives can help us to measure the health of marine environments and to better understand the status of prey species like fish and squid that are also frequently consumed by humans, he added.

The researchers plan to continue testing the cameras as a marine predator research tool by deploying them on other cetacean species and sharks in the near future.

“For the first time, these cameras have given us the opportunity to see what dolphins do on their own terms,” Machovsky-Capuska said. “There were no wildlife crews, no invasive underwater housings — and the dolphins remained largely unaffected by our cameras. This research opens up a whole new approach for capturing wild animal behaviour, which will ultimately help us to not only advance conservation efforts but also come closer to understanding wild predators’ and human nutrition too.”

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