Evidence for distinct coastal and offshore communities of bottlenose dolphins in the north east Atlantic.
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Bottlenose dolphin stock structure in the northeast Atlantic remains poorly understood. However, fine scale photo-id data have shown that populations can comprise multiple overlapping social communities. These social communities form structural elements of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) [corrected] populations, reflecting specific ecological and behavioural adaptations to local habitats. We investigated the social structure of bottlenose dolphins in the waters of northwest Ireland and present evidence for distinct inshore and offshore social communities. Individuals of the inshore community had a coastal distribution restricted to waters within 3 km from shore. These animals exhibited a cohesive, fission-fusion social organisation, with repeated resightings within the research area, within a larger coastal home range. The offshore community comprised one or more distinct groups, found significantly further offshore (>4 km) than the inshore animals. In addition, dorsal fin scarring patterns differed significantly between inshore and offshore communities with individuals of the offshore community having more distinctly marked dorsal fins. Specifically, almost half of the individuals in the offshore community (48%) had characteristic stereotyped damage to the tip of the dorsal fin, rarely recorded in the inshore community (7%). We propose that this characteristic is likely due to interactions with pelagic fisheries. Social segregation and scarring differences found here indicate that the distinct communities are likely to be spatially and behaviourally segregated. Together with recent genetic evidence of distinct offshore and coastal population structures, this provides evidence for bottlenose dolphin inshore/offshore community differentiation in the northeast Atlantic. We recommend that social communities should be considered as fundamental units for the management and conservation of bottlenose dolphins and their habitat specialisations.
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