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24 Apr 2023

Humpback dolphin ‘broken jaws’ under research

Dave Savides (Zululand Observer) Picture: Brett Atkins. The badly damaged rostrum of the unfortunate Richards Bay dolphin named White Tip

Most people envisage dolphins as creatures that live a carefree, cheerful life in the ocean. After all, they look cute and always appear to be smiling – but the reality is that they face many difficulties. Habitat degradation, pollution, predators, ship propellers, shark nets, climate change, disease and many other issues make theirs a life that is constantly threatened.

Marine biologist Shanan Atkins, who heads the Richards Bay Endangered Humpback Dolphin Project, has shared information on a study on how the rostra (jaws) of these dolphins can become damaged and broken. At the same time, some appear to have an extreme ability to cope with the disability of a disfigured or seriously injured rostrum. Working with colleagues of the SouSA Consortium – a group studying humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea) along the South African coastline – they have over a period of years photographed and documented such injuries.

“The characteristic surfacing pattern of the humpback dolphins gives plenty of opportunity to observe their rostra,” says Atkins.

“Typically, the rostrum first breaks the surface, followed by the head, a quick breath then the arching of the back – revealing the dorsal fin – and it disappears under the water, leaving only two widening circular ripples as the only sign it had been there.”

Researchers were perplexed when they noticed abnormalities on the snout of a dolphin, and on investigation found that colleagues in other study areas along the coast had documented similar sightings. They decided to work together to describe the phenomenon, figure out its extent and examine individual survival information.

A normal, healthy rostrum on a delightful young humpback dolphin photographed by Mark Atkins

“Ten researchers from seven institutions collaborated – collecting and sharing dolphin photographs taken in seven areas: False Bay, Gansbaai, Struisbaai, St Sebastian Bay, Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay and Richards Bay,” said Atkins.

“They found that 11% of the individuals surveyed had evidence of abnormal rostra.

“In total, 19 of the 31 individuals had clearly broken jaw bones, nine had aberrant shapes (for example twisted or maligned jaws), two had minor injuries and one had some fishing line causing a problem.

“Some of these abnormalities would likely have had serious implications for the dolphins, which need their jaws/rostra intact to catch the fish they eat.

“In addition, the jaws are important for echolocation – for sound transmission and echo reception. Therefore, damaged rostra potentially make it much harder for a dolphin to perceive the environment, and to find and catch fish.

Surprise findings

“We were surprised to find that many of the dolphins documented in the study were surviving despite these sometimes severe abnormalities.

“Four individuals were observed with their injuries over a ten-year period and another over seven years, with most detail coming from Richards Bay.

“From the start of our project in 1998 we saw White Tip regularly, with her calf Junior. By April 1999, Junior was independent and White Tip had a new baby, Spike.

“In October 1999, we noticed there was something wrong with White Tip’s rostrum but it wasn’t until February 2000 that we could confirm photographically that her upper jaw was badly broken.

“We continued to see her and Spike frequently until July 2001 when they disappeared for nearly a year. Imagine how pleased we were to see her in June 2002 – with a new calf!

“Sadly, we didn’t see them again until November 2002 when they were both fatally entangled in the shark nets.

This female not only survived her disability but even reproduced – successfully raised her calf and gave birth to another three, years after the injury,” said Atkins.

The cause of these abnormalities in humpback dolphins is unclear, but potential reasons included the long, thin shape of the jaws (skull morphology), hunting strategies, defence mechanisms, aggression from predators and other dolphins, and exposure to contaminants.

“Humpback dolphins may be more susceptible to injuries owing to their longer rostra, and their hunting behaviour could result in collisions or getting stuck: they have been observed poised vertically, head downwards above reefs, investigating crevices and crannies with their long rostra, snapping with a sideways motion of the head at any rock-dwelling fish that emerged.”

“They could be defending themselves, for example against sharks or other dolphins. It is possible that a particularly high chemical pollution load could also affect their bone density and make them more prone to abnormalities.

“These abnormalities could be indicators of poor underlying health of the population.

“Researchers are now collaborating with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Conservation Planning Specialist Group to conduct a threat analysis and engage stakeholders to develop conservation strategies for the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin at this the southern edge of its range.”