Dolphin Research: Studying Family Trees

At the Wild Dolphin Project, we track individual animals throughout their entire lives and their family trees — who is related to who. Knowing how animals are animals are related allows us to understand more about their social structure, behavior, communication and more.

On addition to our formal database, on our research Vessel Stenella, we keep a binder that visually shows the family trees for our interns, guest passengers, and colleagues who join us.

Now, Florida Atlantic graduate student, Hayley Knapp, working with Denise Herzing, Ph.D., as well as James Baldwin, Ph.D., professor and associate dean for faculty development, is updating the family tree database.

Nautica in a mixed juvenile group. Photo by Bethany Augliere.

Read more from Hayley more about the project:

Hayley Knapp

Why update the family tree?

The family tree project is an update of the family tree binder that has been on the boat for years. It hasn’t been done since the exodus event in 2013 — when 50 % of the resident dolphins moved 100 miles south to the next sandbank, Grand Bahama Bank (GBB) off Bimini. So, I figured now was a good time to update it. My graduate thesis research examines paternity, so having an updated family tree tracing maternity and half siblings will be useful for me so that I know which males I can rule out due to maternal relatedness.

I also think it is such a cool visual for passengers and researchers to be able to look at on the boat because it really demonstrates the longevity of the project. I remember pulling the binder down on my first intern trip because it looked like something really neat to visualize and understand. But it was outdated and really highlighted the Little Bahama Bank (LBB) dolphins prior to move in 2013. So, having the chance to update it has been special for me.

What are some examples of family lines?

Here’s a visual of these mothers: Nippy (4th generation family), Blotches (4th generation family), Lilly (mom of Linus who is an LBB fused male now living on GBB), and the Littlegash line (since Littleprawn is a favorite amongst the crew and passengers)

Why do you think this work is important?

To me, I think it is important because it is a visual representation of our work. It is done in a simple way that the average person can understand. It really shows just how much work has gone into researching the Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas over the last 40 years. When it comes to genetic research, it aids in ruling out potential fathers. So for me, it is helpful because I can know who to include or not include in all my statistical analyses.

Field assistant Liah Mcpherson with Littleprawn. Photo by Bethany Augliere

What do you think is most interesting about this work?

I think it is cool how the family tree project is something almost every kid does in elementary school. To be able to do it with our study population makes it more relatable to the public. It almost creates this connection to where you can see that yes they are wild animals, but they also have social connections and relationships just like people. It may look different, but those relationships still exist. It’s also been a cool way to see how many of these females are still around after the exodus event or even since Dr. Denise Herzing started the project in 1985.

Dr. Denise Herzing with a group of young spotted dolphins. Photo by Bethany Augliere

Do you have a family favorite line?

I personally love the Nippy family line. I have seen Nassau (one of Nippy’s daughters) and many of her children in the water including Nautilus, Nautica and Nugget. All of them are very friendly dolphins and we generally have fantastic encounters with them, which is great for data but also for the passenger experience as well. It is also so impressive to me just how many children Nassau has had — seven so far, but she was noted as pregnant in 2022 and we did not have an in-water encounter with her in 2023. So she may have had number 8. Who knows?!
atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas

Nassau with her female calf Nautica. Photo by Bethany Augliere

Read more:

Learn more about Hayley here in our Meet the Team blog.