Genetics degree in South African
In 1828, in a short paper in the journal Spicilegia Zoologica, British zoologist John Edward Gray reported six "new and undescribed" marine animals, among them a small dolphin found off southern Africa's Atlantic coast. The specimen had been brought to him by Thomas Haviside, a captain for the East India Company, who encountered the dolphin off the coast of Namibia. Gray dubbed the species Haviside's dolphin.
Unfortunately, Gray and those who followed him made a slight mistake in describing this species. They confused Capt. Haviside with the similarly named Capt. Heaviside, a British surgeon who collected cetacean species. The name Heaviside's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii) has since stuck.
Precious few scientific studies of the Heaviside's dolphin have been published in the nearly 200 years since its first description. One paper in 1977 described its underwater sounds, a topic a few other studies have echoed. Another project in 2004 tracked six dolphins via satellite to learn about their range and movements. A 2006 study looked at genetic variation within the species, which suggested a high level of homogeneity within the dolphin's populations but made few conclusions. A 2008 study tried to estimate the population size for the species, but it suffered from a lack of data.
That was about it—until now. A new genetic study conducted by Keshni Gopal as part of her doctoral research at the University of Pretoria in South Africa has revealed some bad news for these poorly understood dolphins. They are all related and the removal of as few as 15 individuals per year from the total population could have dire consequences on future breeding and population size.
For her study, Gopal collected samples from 395 individual dolphins, a difficult task that took four hot summers. "Since these dolphins come inshore in the early hours of the morning, I had to be out at sea very early, " she says. Over time she developed the coordination necessary to collect biopsy samples from the fast-moving dolphins with a pole-spear called a Hawaiian sling. "The dolphins sometimes made it extremely difficult for me to take a sample, " she says. "When I was unsuccessful at taking a sample, they were more wary of me."
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