In pandemic silence, scientists can finally hear endangered dolphins

Previous recordings of Burrunan dolphin communication were broken up with the noise of passing boats traveling across the dolphins’ Gippsland Lakes habitat. During pandemic lockdowns, however, scientists were able to record the uninterrupted sounds of the endangered dolphins for the very first time. 

The Gippsland Lakes are located near Melbourne and their Burrunan dolphin population was classified as a unique species of bottlenose in 2011. Scientists from the Marine Mammal Foundation (MMF) have been studying the species for over a decade, but the unprecedented quiet of the pandemic has afforded them the opportunity to capture over 3,000 hours of clear recordings of the dolphins. 

Thanks to these recordings, scientists are discovering more and more about the communication patterns of the dolphins. For example, they now know that each Burrunan has a “signature whistle,” like a name, and some form close bonds with each other that last over ten years. 

A big chunk of this recording work focuses on correlating sounds with specific organisms to further break down species behavior. This means dropping hydrophones into the water to record sounds and observing behavior to match each sound with a specific animal. The team is recording 24 hours a day in hopes of uncovering new information about mating and feeding that will help them protect this endangered species. 

In an interview with Wired, MMF founding director Kate Robb said, “We’re not just trying to understand dolphin communication, we’re also looking at conservation, at the human behaviors that impact the dolphins, so that we can recommend new policies to protect them.”

Image Source: MMF

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