9 August 2016
Researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast and America’s Georgetown University have returned to USC’s Sippy Downs campus to analyse tissue samples taken during exciting fieldwork with bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Western Australia.
USC Research Fellow Dr Celine Frere said an international research grant was enabling more students from both universities to be involved in a decades-long study into the social evolution of more than 2,000 dolphins at Shark Bay Marine Reserve.
The global study is led by Professor Janet Mann of Georgetown University, Washington DC.
The reserve, about 850km north of Perth, is renowned for its population of wild bottlenose dolphins which have come close to shore at Monkey Mia beach for more than 50 years.
Dr Frere, a USC molecular ecologist examining how animal genes evolve within social environments, said the reserve’s World Heritage status provided a rare opportunity to track dolphin behaviours over time and in close proximity.
“I’m part of an international group of researchers awarded a $320,000 grant by the United States’ National Science Foundation to support student research,” she said. “This grant is prestigious, with a success rate of only about four percent of all applications.
“It’s already helped two students from Georgetown University to join me and USC PhD candidate Alexis Levengood in WA to survey the dolphins from boats, then collect data and biopsies.
“Allison Galezo and Kate (Yi Kyung) Jin are now back here in the USC labs for a fortnight as we study the genetics of the biopsies and analyse the data.”
Dr Frere said a Georgetown University PhD student would arrive at USC in November to continue the research into genetic changes in dolphin mothers and their offspring.
Next year, the NSF grant and USC Office of Research funding will help two USC students of Animal Ecology to travel to Shark Bay for the project.
Dr Frere said researchers were interested in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate.
“Dolphins are extremely social, like humans, and my research aims to find out if we are who we are because of the genes we’ve inherited or the environment we grew up in,” she said.
“My PhD student Alexis Levengood is looking at the ‘maternal effect’ – whether and how mothers can shape evolution.”
USC Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Roland De Marco said it was wonderful that Dr Frere’s research had been recognised through the highly competitive NSF grant.
“This funding will provide an excellent opportunity for our students to visit a leading international research site, and to work alongside students from Georgetown University,” he said, adding that the trip would strengthen the relationship between the two institutions.