Environment Panama , Panamá, Wednesday, April 15 of 2020, 09:07

Bocas dolphins may be more sociable while we shelter in place

A study of dolphin behavior in the presence of tourist boats informs conservation efforts

STRI/DICYT Wild animals are changing their behavior as the coronavirus puts the world in lockdown: pumas stroll the streets of Boulder, Colorado and dolphins frolic along the beaches of Lima, Peru, replacing the usual bobbing crowd of surfers. At the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Bocas del Toro Research Station in Panama, researchers are sharing new results about dolphin behavior with and without tourist boats, giving us some clues about how dolphins may be experiencing the world as humans shelter in place.


In Bocas del Toro, on Panama’s western Caribbean coast, dolphin-watching is one of the main tourist attractions. While most bottle-nosed dolphins are not endangered, the group of about 37 animals in Dolphin Bay are genetically distinct from other groups in the region.


“Dolphin-watching, when done properly, can be a powerful tool for educating the public and is also economically rewarding,” said Laura May Collado, research associate at the Smithsonian and professor at University of Vermont. “Our goal is to provide trustworthy information about its short- and long-term impacts on these animals.”


May-Collado and her team have been working in Bocas for almost 17 years, both directly observing the animals, studying their relationships and genetics and using acoustic monitoring to understand how their underwater communications change when tour boats are present. They have also shared their results with everyone from school children to tourism agencies.


In this study, they kept track of the time dolphins spent looking for food, resting, socializing and travelling with and without dolphin tourists. In the presence of tour boats, the length of time dolphins spent socializing decreased significantly. Individual animals spent less time looking for food and more time travelling. It also took more time for them to recover—to go back to foraging, after they had been interrupted by tour boats than when interrupted by natural events.


“In 2014 we had a meeting with different sectors of the Bocas community. At that time there were 12 tour companies, 165 boats and 179 boat captains who participated in dolphin tourism. Most companies offered tours every day at the same time of day.”


As a result of the workshop, the community generated a proposal to the Institute of Tourism in Panama (ATP) to build a dolphin center as a platform for education, citizen science and regulation. Panama’s recently updated dolphin watching guidelines stipulate the maximum of number of boats that may observe the animals at one time, the maximum time of interaction and how to approach and leave the area.


But May-Collado is still concerned that the high turnover of boat captains involved makes it difficult to be sure that they are aware of research on how the way they approach dolphins may affect their behavior.


"In some countries, conservationists have worked to establish a licensing system for companies that offer dolphin watching with a renewal system requiring evidence of training and compliance," May-Collado said. "Other countries establish a park ranger system to monitor the number of visitors and their behavior. The government of Panama is analyzing the possibility of establishing a protected area in Dolphin Bay. That would be a game changer for these dolphins and the communities that rely economically on their health and well-being.”


Bibliographic reference 


Kassamali-Fox, A., Christiansen,F., May-Collado, L.J., Ramos, E.A. and Kaplan, B. 2020 Tour boats affect the activity patterns of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Bocas del Toro, Panama. PeerJ