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ESR 46:91-103 (2021)  -  DOI:

Low mitochondrial genetic diversity in the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin Sousa plumbea in South African waters

Sarah Lampert1, Robert A. Ingle1, Jennifer A. Jackson2, Keshni Gopal3,4, Stephanie Plön5,6,*

1Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa
2British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK
3Natural Science Collections Facility (South African National Biodiversity Institute), Pretoria 0186, South Africa
4Department of Natural History, Iziko South African Museums, Cape Town 8001, South Africa
5Bayworld Centre for Research and Education (BCRE), Port Elizabeth 6013, South Africa
6Present address: Division of Medical Virology, Department of Pathology, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town 7505, South Africa
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The Indian Ocean humpback dolphin Sousa plumbea has been described as South Africa’s most endangered marine mammal due to its low abundance, reliance on coastal habitats with increasing anthropogenic threats and high rates of mortality from bycatch in bather protection nets (BPNs). Although the species has been well studied in South Africa, only a single study has examined its molecular ecology to date, and its population structure remains poorly understood. However, understanding population structure is vital for the conservation and management of a species. To address these research gaps for S. plumbea in South African waters, we analysed the mitochondrial D-loop of 157 museum skin and tooth samples collected between 1963 and 2017 from across the species’ geographic range in South Africa. Our data show that the humpback dolphin has extremely low mitochondrial diversity (haplotype diversity, HD = 0.47; nucleotide diversity, π = 0.2%) with only 3 haplotypes identified, which is comparable to the Critically Endangered Māui dolphin Cephalorhynchus hectori maui and the Critically Endangered Mekong population of Irrawaddy dolphin Orcaella brevirostris. Mitochondrial genetic diversity has not changed significantly in the last 50 yr, despite the high levels of bycatch in BPNs over this time period. Furthermore, we found no evidence of differentiation between dolphins from the KwaZulu-Natal Coast and the Cape South Coast (Western Cape and Eastern Cape). The extremely low mitochondrial diversity we found adds to the growing body of evidence that the humpback dolphin is becoming increasingly vulnerable and that urgent conservation efforts are required for the survival of the species.

KEY WORDS: Conservation · Population structure · Mitochondrial DNA · mtDNA · Genetics · Cetaceans · Sousa plumbea

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Cite this article as: Lampert S, Ingle RA, Jackson JA, Gopal K, Plön S (2021) Low mitochondrial genetic diversity in the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin Sousa plumbea in South African waters. Endang Species Res 46:91-103.

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