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Connectivity in dolphin DNA may aid conservation plans

Atlantic white-sided dolphins shown to be strongly connected across their population, challenging common assumption of divided groups in cetacean species.

Dolphins at sea

Genetic insights could help shape conservation strategies for the most common dolphin species in the North Atlantic.

A study of Atlantic white-sided dolphins is the first to reveal genetic connectivity across the range of any North Atlantic dolphin species, which are more commonly divided into distinct populations.

While most dolphin species keep to smaller areas and have discrete populations, Atlantic white-sided dolphins are interconnected in one large population across a wide territory.

Given this difference, a blanket conservation plan may not be suitable for all cetacean species in the Atlantic, suggests the team of researchers led by the Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

Dedicated teams monitored coastal areas of Scotland, Ireland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and France for dolphins that had come ashore, known as strandings. They collected genetic data from muscle and skin tissue samples and stored these over the span of 27 years. 

Samples were analysed by comparison with DNA datasets that represent key genetic markers without analysing the entire genetic code.

Long-term stranding data collections are valued by cetacean researchers, as these can provide insight into the impact of conservation management strategies.

Their findings offer valuable insight into a species whose offshore habitat is often difficult to access and monitor.

Population structure and conservation

These results uncover previously unexplored aspects of Atlantic white-sided dolphin population structure and carry implications into the conservation efforts of this species.

Protecting a population spread across a vast area would require communication between all relevant countries and management entities to agree conservation efforts.

While genetic connectivity across an abundant population are generally positive signs for the long-term health of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, there is a lack of baseline data on genetic diversity and common threats to individual survival as well as no regular monitoring of population health. Future conservation efforts should consider the unique structure of the species and adapt conservation plans to fit the specific structure of this dolphin species.

Entities working in cetacean conservation efforts could use these findings as a catalyst for further research into this largely understudied species, the team suggests

The study was published in ICES Journal of Marine Science. Research was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Glasgow, Faroe Marine Research Institute (Faroe Islands) and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. The project was funded through a PhD studentship from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and the Roslin Institute.

Conservation management efforts should focus on monitoring genetic diversity, contaminant loads such as harmful industrial chemicals and other known threats for Atlantic dolphin species such as possible fishing bycatch. More information on the general distribution of Atlantic white sided dolphins is also needed. It’s important to research this deep sea associated species, there’s still much work to be done to understand how best to manage their conservation.

Marc-Alexander GosePhD student in Genetics and Genomics

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Scientific publication

Image credit: Jonas von Werne/Unsplash

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The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence in clinical activity, teaching and research. Our purpose-built campus, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pentland Hills Regional Park, is home to more than 800 staff and almost 1400 students, all of whom contribute to our exceptional community ethos.

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Easter Bush Pathology

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