Analysing 25 years of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) strandings along the Atlantic coast of the USA: do historic records support the coastal migratory stock hypothesis?

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William A. McLellan
Ari S. Friedlaender
James G. Mead
Charles W. Potter
D. Ann Pabst


Between June 1987 and March 1988, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus Montagu 1821) along the US Atlantic coast experienced an epizootic. Monthly interquartile ranges of strandings during the epizootic were used to propose the Coastal Migratory Stock (CMS) of bottlenose dolphins (Scott et al., 1988). To date, the hypothesised CMS remains poorly understood. The goal of this study was to use a 25-year database to compare stranding patterns during the epizootic to those before (1972-1986) and after (1989-1997) the event. These comparisons reveal that monthly interquartile ranges during the epizootic are dissimilar to those before and after the event. The frequency distribution of total monthly strandings during the epizootic is also significantly different from those observed outside the event. Seasonal stranding patterns from 1989-1997 suggest more complex movements of dolphins along the US Atlantic coast than those of a single group ranging seasonally from Florida to New Jersey. In winter, for example, when the current model for the CMS predicts dolphin distributions concentrated in central Florida, the highest number of strandings occurred in North Carolina. Thus, these comparative analyses suggest that the pattern observed during the epizootic was anomalous, and not representative of stranding distributions for any other time period of the study. During the 15 years before the epizootic, and the nine years following, there was no clear picture of ‘migration’ of mortality along the coast. This study demonstrates how long-term, systematic collection of strandings data can be useful in testing hypotheses regarding the complex stock structure of coastal bottlenose dolphins. This knowledge will greatly enhance the ability to conserve and manage these animals as they recover from historic (i.e. directed takes and epizootic) and current sources of mortality.

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