The Eckerd College Dolphin Project: Studying Eckerd’s Local Dolphins
Journalist: Kaitlin Stanton | Editor: Amelia Kalagher | Videographer: Margaret Balliet
One of the most influential factors attracting students to Eckerd College is our unique natural setting - hence our “Think Outside” slogan. Students particularly enjoy our access to the waterfront, wildlife, and our own very South Beach! Some remarkable EC students are currently doing hands-on research studying the local bottlenose dolphins through the Eckerd College Dolphin Project. Their extraordinary work includes studying the dolphins’ population dynamics, acoustics, and ecology.
The Dolphin Project is the world’s longest running undergraduate dolphin research organization, and it allows Eckerd students to gain experience conducting field research as well as doing lab analysis. It began in 1993 and is currently run by Dr. Shannon Gowans and Dr. Peter Simard. Many of the students became involved by applying for Eckerd’s Freshman Research Associateship, and were placed into the dolphin research project out of a number of options. Other students get interested in the project and join part-way through their Eckerd degrees.
Participating students conduct research by taking Eckerd research boats out into Boca Ciega Bay and the greater Tampa Bay area to conduct surveys for bottlenose dolphins. One main type of data collection is to take pictures of their dorsal fins. Students then analyze the photos and identify individual dolphins in the lab by comparing characteristic notches on the dorsal fins with dolphins already in their catalogue of individuals. The Dolphin Project currently has a catalogue of over 900 different bottlenose dolphins. Additionally, the Dolphin Project records dolphin sounds with a hydrophone while following dolphins in the research boat, and has placed audio recording devices at the bottom of Boca Ciega Bay, Tampa Bay, and in the Gulf of Mexico. By studying these dolphins through photo identification and bioacoustics, the researchers have already found important information about their population dynamics, distribution, social behavior, and foraging. For example, we know which dolphins stick together, and which dolphins spend their entire lives entirely in the local area.
Meredith MacQueeney, ‘19, joined the Dolphin Project as a freshman, and has been doing research for three years. At first she worked on photo identification analysis and then moved on to work with the acoustic analysis to listen for whistles and echolocation (two of the most common dolphin sounds). MacQueeney emphasized the longitudinal nature of the project, saying, “We’re collecting data on a year-round basis, which really gives us advantages and the ability to do long-term studies.”
Brooke Davis, ‘19, has been working for the Dolphin Project since the fall semester of her sophomore year at Eckerd. Davis mentioned that the data gathered so far has led to the finding that certain dolphins stick with other specific dolphins, and are consistently seen together. Further research will focus on their group dynamics and what characteristics and lifestyles they can associate with these specific groups.
Another student who joined the Dolphin Project as a freshman is Jeffrey Michalec, ‘19. Michalec also works with both photo identification and acoustic analysis. Another key finding in their research, he mentioned, is that some dolphins generally do not leave the 20-mile radius of Eckerd’s campus, and some have spent their entire lives near Eckerd. These dolphins have been instrumental to understanding the dynamics of the local dolphin population as a whole. Some repeatedly-appearing dolphins have even become favorites of some of the researchers - such as Cupid, a resident of Boca Ciega Bay who has been seen with four individual calves since first encountering her in January 1997.
Participating in the Dolphin Project has been a wonderful opportunity for many of the researchers. Both Davis and Michalec received the Hollings Scholarship last year, and the research has led others to different prestigious internships. Many Dolphin Project students get the opportunity to attend scientific conferences (Davis recently traveled to present her research at an international conference in Halifax, Canada) and even get published in scientific journals. Juliet Stevenson, ‘19, has been working on research investigating how dolphins use artificial reefs, and credits her experience with the Dolphin Project for earning her internship with MOTE Marine Laboratory, with whom she has done photo identification and GPS tracking.
Perhaps most importantly, the Dolphin Project has encouraged many participating students to pursue a career in marine mammal research. Many Dolphin Project alumni have gone on to graduate school, management positions, or working in marine mammal conservation. MacQueeney hopes to attend graduate school to focus in marine mammal biology and behavior to help inform management of high-risk stocks. Notably, she has taken interest in the many human interactions between boaters and Florida dolphins resulting in increased rates of injury from vessel strikes and gear entanglement. MacQueeney stated she hopes more students, as well as the St. Petersburg community, will want to learn more about the Dolphin Project and interacting safely with local wildlife. She facilitates this education by managing the official Dolphin Project Instagram account, @ecdolphinproject, and filling it with fun facts and pictures of the Tampa Bay dolphins.
One of her favorite memories of the Dolphin Project, Davis mentioned, was “just getting to see them [the dolphins] every day.” These encounters and the hands-on experience have been unforgettable to many students, as well as provided invaluable career experience. The Dolphin Project is yet another example of how Eckerd’s unique, tight-knit community really facilitates hands-on learning and research experience for undergraduates; opportunities like this just aren’t possible at a big state school. If you’re interested in Eckerd’s local dolphins, follow the Instagram account or stop by Dr. Gowans’ and Dr. Simard’s office to learn more about the project and what you can do to get involved!