Environmental predictors of bottlenose dolphins distribution and core feeding densities in Galveston Bay, Texas
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Coastal dolphins are often exposed to habitat degradation and direct interactions with humans. Major factors that influence dolphin distribution, critical for conservation concerns, are still poorly understood even for the bottlenose dolphin, the best-studied cetacean. To establish the environmental conditions that best predict occurrence of bottlenose dolphins and high feeding densities in Galveston Bay, I conducted a total of 367 boat surveys in five locations of the estuary, totaling 3,814.77 km of search effort. I counted groups of dolphins and measured surface water temperature, salinity, turbidity, total number of boats, shrimp vessels, and number of seabirds. Using geospatial tools, these data -- along with location, distance to the Gulf of Mexico and water depth -- were analyzed on a 500- m resolution grid. Temporal factors at daily and seasonal scales were also examined. Occurrence was modeled using a Generalized Additive Model and core feeding densities (i.e., feeding densities above 2 SD of the mean) were modeled with a Generalized Linear Model. A total of 1,802 dolphins in 262 groups were detected, 56.87% of which were feeding. I found that all factors except warm/cold seasons and turbidity were useful to predict dolphin distribution, which was related non-linearly to most predictors. Fewer variables were relevant in predicting core feeding densities. These were, in decreasing order of relevance, distance to the Gulf of Mexico, surface water temperature, depth, number of boats, and warm/cold seasons. Feeding was highly clustered and the main core areas, less than approximately 3 km2 wide, were stable across time of day and season. The majority of the occurrences (86.2%) and feeding groups (94%) were situated in two bay locations - Galveston Ship Channel (GSC) and Bolivar Roads (BRD) - that amounted to only one- fifth of the surveyed area. Compared to conditions in GSC and BRD when no dolphins were sighted, feeding cores weredeeper and more seabirds were observed. This fine-scale study of bottlenose dolphin distribution may contribute to a better understanding of habitat requirements for coastal dolphins. It also may provide information needed to minimize potential negative impacts to this population caused by human activities.
Moreno, Maria Paula Teixeira (2005). Environmental predictors of bottlenose dolphins distribution and core feeding densities in Galveston Bay, Texas. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from