Photographing, cataloging their unique dorsal ﬁn markings is key to ongoing research
By Jessica Taylor/Correspondent
With the return of spring, the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research is switching gears from lab work to ﬁeld work. The lab work that takes place during the winter while the dolphins are gone may not be as exciting as spending the day out on the water, but is integral to our research and to the conservation of the dolphins.
The center is a nonproﬁt organization. All of our ﬁeld research is based upon the mark-recapture technique using photo identiﬁcation. Individual bottlenose dolphins have distinctive markings on their dorsal ﬁns that serve as a natural ID tag. By photographing and cataloging the dorsal ﬁns we see, we’re able to track individuals over time and gain valuable insight into the local dolphin community. Several dolphins, including Onion, Fatlip and Skylar, have been tracked in Roanoke Sound for more than 10 years using photo identiﬁcation.
However, an efficient and effective cata-loging system is key to collecting long-term data on the dolphins.
After incorporating in 2008 and receiv-ing a federal permit to study the dolphins shortly thereafter, the next step for the center was to acquire a catalog system. At the time, there were several photo-identi-ﬁcation programs available. The original computer-assisted versions were based off human ﬁngerprinting software. All of these programs were designed to speed up the process of matching dolphins to a catalog; however, many of them lacked the ability to account for other information about the animals. Our search for the optimal photo ID program concluded with a program called FinBase. FinBase was developed by a scientist, Jeff Adams, at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Admin-istration. It was the only program that let us match dorsal ﬁns to our catalog and include information about the dolphins, too. It has been a magical tool for building our photo-identiﬁcation catalog.
Photo identiﬁcation requires patience and attention to detail. Many people would enjoy a sunny day out on the water with dolphins, however, it is a special person that can sit at a computer for hours screening ﬁns, grading their photo quality and matching them to a catalog contain-ing approximately 1,200 dolphins. And FinBase brings up just four photos at a time to compare. A few years ago, volunteer Barb Clark stepped up to the challenge and has been integral to processing photo IDs. FinBase also requires someone to verify all matches. She has spent countless hours organizing, or sorting, dorsal ﬁn photos, rating the focus and quality of each photo, and matching hundreds of ﬁns to our cata-log. Summer interns that come to the Outer Banks also learn to use FinBase, process-ing data that will be used to answer future research questions and adding knowledge of this matching tool to their research repertoire.
It’s true that the life of marine biology is not always as glamorous as it seems, but photo processing is a key step to transform images and datasheets into meaningful information. As we look forward to our upcoming ﬁeld season, warmer weather, and long days out on the water with the dolphins, it is exciting to think about who we will see return “home” for the summer and what new dolphin visitors we will be cataloging next winter.
Biologist Jessica Taylor is Executive Direc-tor of the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research. She has a Bachelors of Science in marine sciences from Rutgers University and a Master’s in coastal environmental management from Duke University. She has participated in ﬁeld research studies of bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, Steller sea lions, and predatory ﬁsh in Flor-ida, South Carolina, New Jersey, Alaska, and Australia. In 2008, she incorporated the nonproﬁt, Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, which is dedicated to the conser-vation of bottlenose dolphins in the Outer banks. For more info, visit obxdolphins.org.