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The South West Bottlenose Dolphin Project: Using citizen science to promote conservation action

Bottlenose dolphins are an iconic species throughout Britain. You may even be lucky enough to see them off the coast of England, but did you know that you could help with research and conservation efforts simply by taking a photo?

Although bottlenose dolphins are now regularly seen along the English coast, there was a time in the not so distant past when they had disappeared. In the 1960s and 70s, the historically large pods were no longer seen, with this thought to be due to pollution caused by the insecticides used in daffodil fields. To this day it isn’t known whether the dolphins simply left the area or whether they died due to this pollution. In 1991 a small pod of dolphins reappeared, likely having travelled from Wales, and this pod is still seen today.

Since then, Cornwall Wildlife Trust has been monitoring sightings of the dolphins through Seaquest Southwest. They could see that even though calves were being seen every year the size of the population wasn’t increasing causing the population to be more vulnerable to extinction risks. Although many people in the region were taking photos of the dolphins, nobody had collated all the sightings. This led to the creation of the South West Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium in 2016 to collate these sightings and gather the evidence needed to get the pod on the radar and promote conservation action. The consortium was led by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and formed a collaborative partnership of local stakeholders including marine tour operators, NGOs, and academics.

Through the collation of photos sent in by members of the public, the first large scale analysis of this dolphin population was able to take place in 2016. A Plymouth University masters student was able to confirm that there is a resident pod inhabiting the waters of the Southwest. This research continues today to try to find out how many dolphins there are, where they range, and what the main threats to them are. Last year it was found that the resident pod numbers 40 dolphins, which is small for a coastal population. They are also facing a variety of threats due to the areas where they live overlapping with busy urban centres. We’ve learnt a lot about these dolphins thanks to members of the public, but we still need to learn more!

Collaboration is important in science – especially when you’re dealing with a highly mobile species like dolphins! Dolphins can travel large distances and the English resident population may have links to other populations around Britain and across the English Channel. That’s why this year the research is expanding to investigate whether there are connections between different populations, with the hope that this will eventually become a channel-wide project.

Citizen science was key to discovering this population and has played a vital role in finding out more about these dolphins and gathering evidence to promote conservation action. Dolphins’ dorsal fins become marked and scarred, acting like a fingerprint from which we can identify individuals. These photos allow us to find out everything from abundance to social structure and movements. Any photos are great for citizen science research; However the best pictures are those that are parallel to the photographer, well-lit, in focus, and where the fin is the majority of the picture.

Whether you’re in England or anywhere else, there will be an organisation who is seeking your photos! If you live in the Southwest and have bottlenose dolphin photos (new or old) please click here to send them to us! . For more information contact

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