February 20, 2015

Georgetown Professor Tracks Thousands of Dolphins in Australia

Janet Mann, a professor of biology and psychology at Georgetown, has spent more than 27 years studying the behavior and characteristics of dolphins in Shark Bay, a world heritage site in Australia rich in wildlife and marine species.

As part of a long-term project, Mann has developed a database to document over 1,900 bottlenose dolphins in collaboration with Lisa Singh, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science.

Scientists have collected demographic, reproductive, genetic, behavioral, and ecological data on individual dolphins over decades. The database is essential for mining this rich dataset. Through photographic identification of dorsal fins, individuals are tracked through time.

“Sometimes a dolphin’s fin gets bitten off by a shark so we don’t know who it is right away," said Mann. "We can use the database to determine likely candidates based on where the dolphin was sighted and with whom, and subsequently match up other body scars to make an identification."

The Beginnings of the Shark Bay Dolphins Project

Mann’s Shark Bay research dates back to 1988. While a graduate student at the University of Michigan, her advisor asked her to join a dolphin research project in Australia. 

“She offered me this opportunity and I thought, 'Well, this sounds great,'" said Mann. "Scientists have studied primates extensively, but almost nothing was known about wild dolphins."

Mann quickly felt comfortable working in the water as the experience reminded her of a childhood memory.

“I used to go to Montauk a lot as a kid. It was a small fishing town, and it reminded me of that,” Mann recalled. Mann continued with the project even after her advisor decided to resume her study of land mammals. 

She now examines a wide range of aspects about the dolphin community, from calf development to female reproduction, social networks and genetics to behavior.

Raising Awareness

Mann’s research on the Shark Bay dolphins has been documented by international media organizations such as National Geographic, BBC, and other television teams from Japan, South Africa, France, Italy, Ireland, and Germany.

Her work has also been featured and published by news outlets and scientific journals to inform and educate the public about the dolphin population. One reason these dolphins are of interest is because they engage in a range of dramatic foraging behaviors, including the use of marine sponges as tools and beaching to catch fish. They also have complex social bonds, including multi-level long-term alliances.

“It’s fascinating to watch what dolphins go through from birth into their 40s, and how different they are from each other," said Mann. "Some have lots of associates; others have small and tight cliques."

Opportunities for Students

Students usually begin collaborating with Mann in their freshman or sophomore year as research assistants in her lab at Georgetown. Some students then have the opportunity to travel to Australia with Mann and use their experiences as the basis for their senior thesis.

“We’re often in the field from May to December," said Mann. "Some of them have even gone back after graduation."

Desirae Cambrelen, a senior biology major who has worked with Mann since her freshman year, spent 11 weeks in Australia in 2013 to help the professor collect and analyze data on dolphins. 

“It’s an incredible experience, and it’s great to see my favorite animal," said Cambrelen. "I was shocked to see how well they identify the dolphins from their fins and markings."

In addition to collaborating with students, Mann works with a range of international institutions on her research project, including the University of New South Wales, University of Queensland, Murdoch University, and the University of Western Australia.