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El Niño in the Pacific has an impact on dolphins

El Niño in the Pacific has an impact on dolphins over in Western Australia


Kate Sprogis, Murdoch University; Fredrik Christiansen, Murdoch University; Lars Bejder, Murdoch University, and Moritz Wandres, University of Western Australia

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) are a regular sight in the waters around Australia, including the Bunbury area in Western Australia where they attract tourists.

The dolphin population here, about 180km south of Perth, has been studied quite intensively since 2007 by the Murdoch University Cetacean Unit. We know the dolphins here have seasonal patterns of abundance, with highs in summer/autumn (the breeding season) and lows in winter/spring.

But in winter 2009, the dolphin population fell by more than half.

A leaping bottlenose dolphin.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

This decrease in numbers in WA could be linked to an El Niño event that originated far away in the Pacific Ocean, we suggest in a paper published today in Global Change Biology. The findings could have implications for future sudden drops in dolphin numbers here and elsewhere.

A Pacific event

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results from an interaction between the atmosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean. ENSO periodically fluctuates between three phases: La Niña, Neutral and El Niño.

During our study from 2007 to 2013, there were three La Niña events. There was one El Niño event in 2009, with the initial phase in winter being the strongest across Australia.

The blue vertical line shows the decline in dolphin numbers (d) during the 2009 El Niño event.
Kate Sprogis, Author provided

Coupled with El Niño, there was a weakening of the Leeuwin Current, the dominant ocean current off WA. There was also a decrease in sea surface temperature and above average rainfall.

ENSO is known to affect the strength of the south-ward flowing Leeuwin Current.

During La Niña, easterly trade winds pile warm water on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. This westerly flow of warm water across the top of Australia through the Indonesian Throughflow results in a stronger Leeuwin Current.

During El Niño, trade winds weaken or reverse and the pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean gathers on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. This results in a weaker Indonesian Throughflow across the top of Australia and a weakening in strength of the Leeuwin Current.

A chart showing sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies off Western Australia. Note the extremes for the moderate El Niño in 2009 (blue rectangle), and the strong La Niña in 2011 (red rectangle)
Moritz Wandres, Author provided

The strength and variability of the Leeuwin Current coupled with ENSO affects species biology and ecology in WA waters. This includes the distribution of fish species, the transport of rock lobster larvae, the seasonal migration of whale sharks and even seabird breeding success.

The question we asked then was whether ENSO could affect dolphin abundance?