SOURCE: University of Zurich

DATE: April 1, 2019

SNIP: An unprecedented marine heatwave had long-lasting negative impacts on both survival and birth rates on the iconic dolphin population in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Researchers at UZH have now documented that climate change may have more far-reaching consequences for the conservation of marine mammals than previously thought.

Shark Bay in Western Australia in early 2011: A heatwave causes the water temperatures to rise to more than four degrees above the annual average. The extended period caused a substantial loss of seagrass, which drives the Shark Bay ecosystem, in this coastal area, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Researchers from UZH have now investigated how this environmental damage has affected survival and reproduction of dolphins. They used long-term data on hundreds of animals collected over a ten-year period from 2007 to 2017. Their analyses revealed that the dolphins’ survival rate had fallen by 12 percent following the heatwave of 2011. Moreover, female dolphins were giving birth to fewer calves – a phenomenon that lasted at least until 2017.

“The extent of the negative influence of the heatwave surprised us,” says Sonja Wild, former PhD candidate at the University of Leeds and first author of the study. “It is particularly unusual that the reproductive success of females appears to have not returned to normal levels, even after six years.”