HATTIESBURG, MS. (THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI) – Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, dolphins are proving as resilient as their human counterparts at re-establishing their home there, based on the research of a University of Southern Mississippi professor and his students.
Dr. Stan Kuczaj, professor of psychology and director of the Southern Miss Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory, has studied dolphin cognition and communication as well as correlations between dolphin and human behavior for more than 20 years. His findings on their rebound from the storm were featured in an article recently published in Marine Mammal Science.
A dramatic increase in the number of dolphin calves in the Mississippi Sound were documented by Kuczaj's team two years following the Aug. 29, 2005 storm. The proportion of calves to other dolphins increased by more than 600 hundred percent from the summer of 2005, immediately before Katrina made landfall, to spring 2007.
"Dolphins are a key element of the coast's ecosystem, and our research examines in part how they and humans co-exist, especially with regard to our fishing industry," he said. "To see that they have returned in force is encouraging.'
Kuczaj and his team believe the decrease in commercial and recreational fishing following Katrina may have resulted in increased fish populations for the dolphins to prey upon, which in turn could have resulted in more successful births. The researchers also found that dolphin foraging is sometimes interrupted by boats, and so the reduction of boat traffic following Katrina may have allowed the dolphins to be more efficient hunters.
These factors could have contributed to the observed increase in the number of calves, Kuczaj said. "Although this makes it seem like Katrina was a blessing for the dolphins, the storm could have killed dolphin calves, which would have resulted in more fertile females."
Angela Mackey, a doctoral student in experimental psychology from Laramie, Wyo. who works in the laboratory, co-authored an article with Kuczaj on the storm's impact on the dolphins in the area titled "Potential Effects of a Major Hurricane on Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus) Reproduction in the Mississippi Sound." Her master's thesis also focused on the dolphins in the Mississippi Sound.
"This has been a great experience for me to examine a dolphin population that prior to our research had not been well-studied before," she said.
Mackey said because the Mississippi Sound is an area heavily utilized by humans for a variety of activities (shipping, commercial/recreational fishing, shrimping), the aftermath of Katrina provided a unique opportunity to better understanding how these activities impact the wildlife that also utilizes the Sound.
She also noted their research reveals the dolphins displaying stronger social bonds with groups and branching out to develop new associations with other dolphins, behaviors not as prevalent before the storm. Mackey has also studied residency patterns, and has found that many of the dolphins that were spotted before Katrina that migrate during the winter are continuing to return, and many of those labeled as year-round residents have remained.
Because the lab has conducted research on dolphins in the area since 2003, Mackey said an event like Hurricane Katrina shows the value of long-term research. "This was an amazing research opportunity (after the storm) because we had all of this information to base comparisons on over time," she said.
Dr. Joe Olmi, chairman of the Southern Miss Department of Psychology, said the research conducted by Kuczaj and his students has brought national and international notoriety to the university. "The work being conducted by Stan and the students in his laboratory is nothing short of amazing," Olmi said. "We're fortunate to have him as a member of our faculty. He's a credit to us all."
NOVA to spotlight Southern Miss Dolphin Research
Kuczaj's research on the popular marine mammal, which has been funded by the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Department of Commerce, will also be spotlighted in a fall episode of the acclaimed television program NOVA that will focus on animal intelligence. NOVA is a production of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Kuczaj and a film crew from NOVA spent spring break in Roatan, Honduras documenting the research group's efforts to learn how two dolphins communicate when they are simultaneously producing novel behaviors. They also interviewed Kuczaj at length regarding his work on dolphin cognition.
"It's gratifying for NOVA to be interested in our research, which reflects well on the hard work of the undergraduates and graduate students who make up our team. It was also another opportunity for us to collect data, and the NOVA team helped. They were as intrigued with what we found as we were."
The research in Honduras began five years ago through a study abroad program near Utila, sponsored by Southern Miss International Education.
"The study abroad program has proven very beneficial to our research, because we have an active lab and the things we do are greatly enhanced when they include international collaboration," Kuczaj said. "It sharpens our research by giving us access to new information and differing perspectives on our subject."
The research team later developed an ongoing association with the Roatan Institute for Marine Science that has also proven beneficial to their work. The Institute is directed by a Southern Miss alumnus, Eldon Bolton. "It's a big open-water facility with a large group of dolphins, which makes it an ideal place for research," Kuczaj said.
Dr. Susan Steen, director of Southern Miss International Education, said the Honduran dolphin research represents one of the university's most innovative international projects. "It's a great example of how study abroad programming can serve to strengthen a faculty member's research and teaching portfolio while also providing students with a transformative learning experience," she said.
The Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory is housed in the College of Education and Psychology's Department of Psychology. Learn more about the laboratory online at http://www.usm.edu/psy-kuczaj/