The use of molecular and observational data to infer the structuring of bottlenose dolphin populations
Knowledge of the structuring of natural populations is important for understanding both evolutionary processes and population ecology, and for supporting management decisions. Conventional methods of direct observation often suffer from a lack of resolution, particularly when studying mobile animals in a marine environment. In this study, I combined direct observation with indirect molecular genetic approaches to infer the social and population structure of coastal (inshore) bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. Genetic diversity and structure of bottlenose dolphins around the UK and Ireland was examined using tissue samples from stranded dolphins and incidental fisheries by-catch. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence data indicated significant subdivision among four main sample regions (NE Scotland, Wales, NW Scotland and Ireland). Genetic divergence between NE and NW Scotland populations, and low genetic diversity within the NE Scotland population, provide further support for the precautionary approach currently applied to the management of this population. Inference from both mtDNA and nuclear microsatellite genetic markers, and direct observational data were used to examine the social and population structure of bottlenose dolphins in the NE Bahamas. Novel strategies for collecting genetic samples (remote biopsy and faecal sampling) from free-ranging dolphins were developed and validated, enabling an individual-based analysis of population subdivision. Patterns of individual associations in two contrasting habitats indicated that environmental pressures affect dolphin grouping patterns; with a genetic basis for social affiliations occurring only where predation pressures are low. Nonetheless, a particularly notable feature of the social structure in both habitats was the persistence of stable alliances among maternally related males. At the population level, the significant degree of genetic structuring revealed among three sampled regions on Little Bahama Bank, supported the high degree of site fidelity suggested by individual-based photo-identification data. Contrary to the patterns of male dispersal and female philopatry common among both mammals and bottlenose dolphins, sex-specific patterns of genetic differentiation inferred from both mtDNA and microsatellite markers were indicative of female-mediated gene flow. This study provides novel insight into the factors governing the patterns of structuring within populations of highly mobile small cetaceans, and demonstrates the value of integrating both direct (field-based) and indirect (molecular genetic) data in the study of free-ranging animals.