Preceding the recent 5th African Marine Mammal Colloquium held in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in late August, members of the South African research consortium for the conservation of the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea), also known as the SouSA Consortium (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/357471181043518/) met to discuss an assessment of skin diseases and other lesions observed in these dolphins.

Researchers routinely collect photographs of animals at sea for photo-identification purposes. For these studies, usually the focus is on the dorsal fin as this part of the animals’ body can be considered like a ‘fingerprint’ i.e. individual animals can be identified by the outline of the fin as well as scars and notches on it. Traditionally, this information is used to determine the movement of individuals and also aids in determining population size. In this way, a previous study by the SouSA Consortium identified that only close to 500 individual animals are left in South African waters at present (Vermeulen et al., 2018. Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) movement patterns along the South African coast. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. DOI: 10.1002/aqc.2836).

Now these photographs are being looked at in a different light as researchers try to glean as much information on these endangered animals as possible in an effort to provide advice to conservation and management authorities. Thus, these pictures are being examined for signs of skin disease as indicators of the health of the animals as well as signs of injury, either from human or natural causes.

The study is being led by Nelson Mandela University’s Dr. Stephanie Plön (AEON- Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute; http://aeon.org.za/ocean-sciences/) in collaboration with her international colleague Dr. Marie-Francoise van Bressem from the Peruvian Centre for Cetacean Research, (CEPEC), Pucusana, Peru.

However, a study of this scale requires a truly collaborative approach and great team effort and currently data are being contributed by Dr. Simon Elwen (Whale Unit, Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria and SeaSearch Research and Conservation) and Dr. Tess Gridley (SeaSearch Research and Conservation, Cape Town), Bridget James (SeaSearch Research and Conservation), Dr. Els Vermeulen (SeaSearch Research and Conservation), Dr. Enrico Gennari (Oceans Research, Mossel Bay), Dr. Gwen Penry (Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth), Dr. Vic Cockcroft (Centre for Dolphin Studies, Plettenberg Bay), Dr. Thibaut Bouveroux (Apex Predator Research Unit, Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth),  Dr. Pierre Pistorius (Apex Predator Research Unit, Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth), Meredith Thornton (Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Gaansbaai), Shanan Atkins (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg), Dr. Alejandra Vargas Fonseca (Apex Predator Research Unit, Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth), Sandra Hörbst (University of Cape Town), Danielle Conry (Orca Foundation, Plettenberg Bay), Dr. Keshni Gopal (National Science Collections Facility & Iziko Museums of Cape Town), as well as whale watching operators Lloyd Edwards (Raggy Charters, Port Elizabeth), Wilfred Chivel (Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Gansbaai).

This group of consortium members first got together in 2015 at the 4th African Marine Mammal Colloquium to join forces out of concern for the conservation status of the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin. Its first major contribution was an assessment of all the known animals in South African waters and the range of their movement; these results were published earlier this year. “This collaborative effort is truly inspiring and the South African colleagues are leading the way compared to other research groups working elsewhere on humpback dolphins”, says Dr. Gill Braulik from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

First results of the current assessment on skin diseases are being expected by mid 2019.

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