Galveston Bay Dolphin Research Program Activities
April – June 2023
Galveston Bay Foundation and the Environmental Institute of Houston (University of Houston at Clear Lake) are pleased to share the latest Galveston Bay Dolphin Research Program (GDRP) quarterly newsletter. Your support has helped make this bottlenose dolphin research possible!
A Splashy Overview
The strong winds have not settled! Typically, as we head into the warmer months of the year the winds lessen, giving us more opportunities to conduct boat-based surveys. This year, high to moderate winds continued during most days through June and consequently the research crew was only able to complete three survey days during the quarter. Moderate winds do not typically pose safety concerns for the crew, but since they affect the choppiness of the water, they have a considerable effect on sighting visibility (i.e., our ability to see dolphins). Good sighting visibility is a crucial component of collecting observation data suitable for analyses. Regardless of the limited survey days, the research crew was able to cover a large portion of our upper and lower Galveston Bay study area. The team covered 130km (20hrs of observation) and sighted 18 dolphin groups with over 250 dolphins.
The second quarter of the year is typically when our researchers first meet the young-of-the-year (YOYs). Several new calves were seen with their mothers in early June, including this calf sighted in a group of mom/calves near Eagle Point. The group was traveling steadily towards the Houston Ship Channel.
On June 24 and 25, the GDRP hosted the first citizen science workshop to train volunteers to work at our new Dolphin Research and Outreach Station at Seawolf Park in Galveston. The Seawolf Station is operated by a small group of GDRP staff and citizen scientists that collect dolphin sighting data from land, while engaging with on-site visitors and fishers to educate on how fishing debris can affect dolphins. This initiative came about after the Galveston Bay Foundation’s Marine Debris team identified high concentrations of fishing/monofilament debris near Seawolf Park, a location known for frequent dolphin sightings.
The first day of training took place at the University of Houston – Clear Lake where we covered diverse background material, including dolphin biology, research methods, outreach strategies, and safety measures, to prepare volunteers. Heidi Whitehead, Executive Director of the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, joined us to give a presentation on strandings and talked about the threat that entanglement in fishing gear poses to dolphins. The following day, the training continued on-site at Seawolf Park where volunteers received hands on training on data collection, photography, and outreach engagement. Twenty-one volunteers completed the training and are now completing observation shifts at Seawolf Park.
The long-term research goals of the Seawolf Station are to study dolphin occurrence and habitat use in the waters surrounding the park, learn about the threats that effect dolphins at the park, and identify and quantify interactions between dolphins and humans at the park. The station is set up at the north east corner of the park, with the study area comprising a 100 meter zone from the shoreline, and a 40 meter focal area. During a shift, the team is tasked with 1) documenting fisher-dolphin interactions, 2) collecting data on dolphin group sightings, 3) obtaining dolphin photographs that can be used for post-analysis (e.g. for individual identification and to record scarring consistent with fishing debris entanglement), and 4) using dolphins as a charismatic/flagship species to educate about the negative effects of marine debris and encourage the use of monofilament recycling tubes at the park. Volunteers are also trained to monitor and report any injured or entangled dolphins to the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network. The Seawolf Station has been set up as an ongoing long-term project, and we plan for at least one shift to be completed on a weekly year-round basis.
GDRP’s principal investigators Kristi Fazioli and Vanessa Mintzer traveled to Sarasota in May to participate in the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program’s (SDRP) dolphin health assessment project. Operating under a NOAA fisheries’ permit, a highly-trained team encircled small groups of dolphins with a net in shallow water, and individual dolphins were restrained and temporarily taken aboard a specially designed veterinary exam vessel. Veterinarians and scientists conducted a physical exam and collected biological samples before releasing the dolphins on-site. GDRP’s co-PIs participated during the week-long project and enjoyed working closely with colleagues from multiple dolphin research groups from around the world. You can learn more about this effort in SDRP’s newsletter.
At the start of the summer we welcomed three new members to the GDRP team! Alayna Robertson joined the team as a GBF Research Assistant. Alayna has previous experience working on bottlenose dolphin field projects in Charleston, SC and Cape May, NJ. She will be spending a lot of her time this summer at Seawolf Park, providing continuous support and training for our land-based monitoring volunteers. Melanie Rogers joined the team as a Research Intern with EIH-UHCL, splitting her time between the GDRP and water quality projects. She is a recent Marine Biology graduate from Texas A&M University at Galveston. Amanda Sosa, a current Marine Science student at the University of Florida, started as a GBF Research Student Intern in May. Her project focuses on developing a rubric to identify skin marks/scars indicative of prior interaction with fishing gear using photographs collected during boat and land-based surveys.
GDRP researchers spent a morning at Moody Gardens with a group of volunteers from the Society for the Advancement of Volunteer Youth (SAVY). The SAVY program is for student volunteers age 14-17 who want to gain experiences in various careers, including biology. Through interactive activities, we introduced them to dolphin biology and GDRP research methods. We also discussed our backgrounds and shared our diverse experiences working in the field of marine mammal science.
The content of this section is available to current members of our Dolphin Society. To become a member and receive updates on our individual dolphins, please adopt or name one of our dolphins. Adoption kits are a fun and unique gift! All funds go directly to the Galveston Bay Dolphin Research Program.
What YOU want to Know…
“Do dolphins have favorite prey in Galveston Bay?”
Bottlenose dolphins are opportunistic feeders and consume a wide variety of prey, including various species of fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. However, research has indicated that dolphins can show preference for certain prey items in their habitats (e.g. Berens McCabe et al. 2010). In previous years, little was known specifically about the diet of Galveston Bay dolphins. That was, until our Research Associate, Sherah McDaniel, studied the foraging ecology of our dolphins for her master’s thesis.
Sherah’s methods involved biopsy dart sampling and stable isotope analysis. Small tissue samples were obtained remotely from selected dolphins using a crossbow and modified dart. The carefully aimed dart bounces off of a dolphin as it swims by, taking a tissue sample, and then continues to float so our team can retrieve it. Samples were then analyzed for varying isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. These isotopic ‘signatures’ can be effective indicators of what prey items dolphins consume. While Galveston Bay dolphins have been observed by our team eating southern flounder, sheepshead, mullet, catfish, and shrimp, the models using stable isotope data provided additional details and identified a wider variety of prey, including Atlantic brief squid.
If you have a question regarding the GDRP, Galveston Bay dolphins, or dolphin biology, please submit your question using the button below. We select questions to answer from your submissions. We look forward to knowing what YOU want to know!
We want to extend a huge thank you to everyone that adopted a dolphin during this year’s Mother’s Day campaign. The campaign is one of our largest annual fundraisers and provides vital support for our program. A special thank you to Atlas Restaurant Group who generously named Atlas (#85) this past quarter.
All activities are conducted under a NMFS Scientific Research Permit.
Galveston Bay Foundation
1725 Highway 146
Kemah, TX 77565
Environmental Institute of Houston
University of Houston at Clear Lake
2700 Bay Area Blvd.
Houston, TX, 77058