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Biology and Conservation of Marine Mammals

Rigorous and innovative research into the ecology and population biology of marine mammals in New Zealand, with a strong conservation focus.

The coastal waters of New Zealand are home to a diverse range of marine mammal species, many of which are threatened by anthropogenic impacts. Our research group is dedicated to studying the ecology of these populations and applying this knowledge to conservation management. We use established and innovative research techniques, specialising in quantitative surveys of abundance and distribution, photo-ID, population modelling, acoustics and photogrammetry.


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Research Projects

Conservation biology of Hector’s dolphin: The endangered Hector’s dolphin is found only in the coastal waters around New Zealand. Our long-term research programme (1984-present) has provided much of the information underpinning the current conservation measures for the species. Current fieldwork focuses on ongoing studies of survival rate and reproduction.

Bottlenoses_sm Ecology and conservation biology of Fiordland bottlenose dolphins: Fiordland provides a habitat for several unique populations of bottlenose dolphins at the limit of their southern range. Current studies are focused on understanding the causes of recent declines and on quantifying effects of tourism.
Recovery and recolonisation by southern right whales: Southern right whales were driven to the brink of extinction in New Zealand by commercial whaling. We are monitoring their recovery by investigating population parameters in the Auckland Islands, using data on habitat preferences to predict potential overlap with anthropogenic impacts around the mainland, and studying their vocalisations and acoustic habitat. right_whale_sm
sperm_whale_sm Population biology and acoustics of sperm whales: Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be studied within a few kilometres of the coast. Our research group maintains a long-term photo-ID and acoustic study of sperm whales at Kaikoura, enabling insights into population biology, ecology and impacts of tourism.

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Opportunities for graduate students (PhD and MSc) exist in all of the group’s current research projects. Prospective students with strong fieldwork and quantitative skills are invited to approach the group’s members to discuss potential project ideas.

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Selected Recent Publications

  • Dawson S.M., Northridge S., Waples D. and Read A.J. In press. To ping or not to ping; the use of active acoustic devices in mitigating interactions between small cetaceans and gillnet fisheries. Endangered Species Research.
  • Gormley A.M., Slooten E., Dawson S.M., Barker R.J., Rayment W.J., DuFresne S.D. and Bräger S. 2012. First evidence that MPAs can work for marine mammals. Journal of Applied Ecology. 49(2): 474-480.
  • Currey R.J.C., Dawson S.M., Schneider K., Lusseau D., Boisseau O.J., Haase P. and Slooten E. 2011. Inferring trends and causal factors for a declining population of bottlenose dolphins via temporal symmetry capture-recapture modelling. Marine Mammal Science 27(3): 554-566.
  • Elliott R.G., Dawson S.M. and Henderson S.D. 2011. Acoustic monitoring of habitat use by bottlenose dolphins in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal Marine and Freshwater Research 45(4): 637-639.
  • Growcott A., Miller B., Sirguey P., Slooten E. and Dawson S. 2011. Measuring body length of sperm whales from their clicks: the relationship between inter-pulse intervals and photogrammetrically measured lengths. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 130: 568-573.
  • Rayment W.J., Dawson S.M. and Slooten, E. 2010. Seasonal changes in distribution of Hector’s dolphin at Banks Peninsula, New Zealand: implications for protected area design. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 20: 106-116.
  • Slooten E. and Dawson S.M. 2010. Assessing the effectiveness of conservation management decisions: Likely effects of new protection measures for Hector’s dolphin. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 20: 334-347.
  • Webster T., Dawson S. and Slooten E. 2010. A simple laser photogrammetry technique for measuring Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori) in the field. Marine Mammal Science 26: 296-308.
  • Childerhouse S.J., Dawson S.M., Fletcher D.J., Slooten E. and Chilvers B.L. 2010. Growth and reproduction of female New Zealand sea lions. Journal of Mammalogy 91: 165-176.
  • Miller B. and Dawson S. 2009. A large-aperture low-cost hydrophone array for tracking whales from small boats. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 126: 2248-2256.
  • Rowe L.E. and Dawson S. 2009. Determining the sex of bottlenose dolphins from Doubtful Sound using dorsal fin photographs. Marine Mammal Science 25: 19-34.