ESR prepress abstract  -  doi: 10.3354/esr00783

Assigning stranded bottlenose dolphins to stock using stable isotope ratios following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

A. A. Hohn*, L. Thomas, R. H. Carmichael, J. Litz, C. Clemons-Chevis, S. F. Shippee, C. Sinclair, S. Smith, T. R. Speakman, M. C. Tumlin, E. S. Zolman

*Email: aleta.hohn@noaa.gov

ABSTRACT: The potential for stranded dolphins to serve as a tool for monitoring free-ranging populations would be enhanced if stock were known. We used stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur from skin to assign stranded bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus to habitat, as a proxy for stock (demographically independent populations), following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Model results from biopsy samples collected from dolphins from known habitats (n = 205) resulted in an 80.5% probability of correct assignment. These results were applied to data from stranded dolphins (n = 217), resulting in predicted assignment probabilities of 0.473, 0.172, and 0.355 to Estuarine, Barrier Island (BI), and Coastal stocks, respectively. Differences were found west and east of the Mississippi River, with more Coastal dolphins stranding in western Louisiana and more Estuarine dolphins stranding in Mississippi. Two estuarine groups were identified east of the Mississippi River; one predominantly associated with Mississippi and Alabama estuaries and another with western Florida. δ15N values were higher in stranded samples for both Estuarine and BI stocks, potentially indicating nutritional stress. High probabilities of correct assignment of the biopsy samples indicate predictable variation in stable isotopes and fidelity to habitat. The power of δ34S to discriminate habitats relative to salinity was essential. Stable isotopes may provide guidance regarding where additional testing is warranted to confirm demographic independence and aid in determining the source habitat of stranded dolphins, thus increasing the value of biological data collected from stranded individuals.