Q&A: IFAW scientist looks for answers behind dolphin strandings for graduate thesis

I did an interview with Todd McLeish, University of Rhode Island Public Information Officer interested in news about oceanography and environmental sciences. Our conversation follows. --CT

TM: What did you want to learn from your research?

CT: I wanted to take a step back from the health aspect of why animals strand and look at whether there were broader scale climatological or oceanographic correlations that could influence dolphin strandings on a longer-term scale.

TM: How are dolphin strandings in the Northeast linked to variations in the North Atlantic Oscillation (a climatic phenomenon which influences the direction and intensity of the polar front jet stream)?

CT: It’s a big atmospheric driver that has been shown to influence the distribution and abundance of marine life. If the North Atlantic Oscillation can do that, then maybe it has something to do with shifting dolphin populations from offshore to inshore coastal waters where they then would have an increased risk of stranding.

TM: Was your hypothesis true?

CT: Yes, the North Atlantic Oscillation does play a role in dolphin strandings. It likely contributes to a redistribution of prey species that could determine whether dolphins remain offshore in deeper waters or near-shore in areas such as Cape Cod Bay.

TM: What else contributes to dolphin strandings?

CT: The historic dogma about live stranded animals, especially dolphins, was that something was wrong with them, and the majority were euthanized. While a lot of animals do strand due to various health issues, we’re finding many that strand due to factors unrelated to their health. In some cases, their navigational abilities may have been compromised. And because dolphins are social animals, they could follow a sick or compromised animal right onto the beach.

Strandings may also be an indication that something is going wrong in the larger marine ecosystem. Marine mammals are sentinel species. If we start seeing a lot of animals that wash ashore showing signs of similar pathologies, then that may be an indication that something bigger is wrong in their environment.

TM: What are you going to do next?

CT: This degree is a big milestone for me, both personally and professionally, but I don’t expect it to lead to any life-altering career changes. Down the road I may want to explore some of the policy angles that have conservation implications. With offshore wind farms and offshore oil and gas exploration, industry and government are going to need someone who understands marine mammal population dynamics. And I would love to be the guy to be the bridge between the science and policymakers.

Read the full article here.


Learn more about IFAW's marine mammal rescue and research here.

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation