Laser photogrammetry reveals variation in growth and early survival in free-ranging bottlenose dolphins

B Cheney* (Corresponding Author), R. S. Wells, T. R. Barton, P. M. Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

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21 Citations (Scopus)
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Growth and body condition can be used as indices of health and fitness, but are difficult to collect for populations of conservation concern where individuals cannot be captured. We incorporated a laser photogrammetry system into boat-based photo-identification surveys that underpin individual-based studies of cetacean populations. These data were integrated with >25 years of observations from a temperate bottlenose dolphin population in Scotland to investigate the influence of sex on growth patterns, effects of birth order on calf size and the longer term consequences of variation in early growth. Field measurements of the distance from the blowhole to the dorsal fin were made in multiple years from 87 dolphins that had been followed from birth, ranging in age from newborn to 26 years. These estimates were validated against direct measurements of 12 individuals that had previously been captured and released in Florida and two study individuals that subsequently stranded. Using relationships derived from other stranded individuals, age-specific body lengths were used to produce growth curves that were based entirely on remote observations. Multilevel regression growth curve analyses suggested males and females showed similar patterns of growth, unlike bottlenose dolphins in sub-tropical areas, and growth was best described by a Richards’ growth curve. Newborn length was unrelated to sex; however, females’ first calves were shorter than subsequent calves. Sample sizes remain small, yet there was evidence of fitness consequences of variation in calf length; calves that died in their first winter were significantly shorter than those that survived. The incorporation of this simple-to-use and inexpensive method into individual-based photo-identification studies provides new opportunities to non-invasively investigate drivers of variation in growth and the demographic consequences of variation in early growth in cetaceans from protected populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)252-261
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Conservation
Issue number3
Early online date14 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018

Bibliographical note

Many thanks to the Chicago Zoological Society team for their assistance during photo-identification surveys in Sarasota, Florida and the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme and University of North Carolina Wilmington Marine Mammal Stranding Program for providing measurements of stranded bottlenose dolphins. Thanks to Holly Fearnbach and Isla Graham for statistical advice, to Hera Sengers and all our fieldwork assistants for their fieldwork support and to four anonymous reviewers who kindly provided comments on the manuscript. Scottish Natural Heritage, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Beatrice Offshore Windfarm Ltd, Moray Offshore Renewables Ltd, Marine Scotland, The Crown Estate and Highlands and Islands Enterprise all provided funding for photo-identification surveys. Survey work was conducted under Scottish Natural Heritage Animal Scientific Licences


  • age
  • growth
  • individual-based studies
  • photo-identification
  • size
  • Tursiops truncatus
  • ceataceans
  • dolphins
  • laser photogrammetry


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