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Tour boats affect the activity patterns of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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  • Ayshah Kassamali-Fox, Department of Environmental Studies, Antioch University New England, Keene, NH, USA, United States
  • Fredrik Oscar Christiansen
  • Laura J. May-Collado, Department of Biology, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 05405, USA., Universidad de Costa Rica, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, United States
  • Eric A. Ramos, Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, NY, USA, Fundación Internacional para la Naturaleza y la Sostenibilidad, United States
  • Beth A. Kaplin, Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management, University of Rwanda, Kigali, Rwanda, University of Massachusetts Boston, Rwanda
Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) of the Bocas del Toro archipelago are targeted by the largest boat-based cetacean watching operation in Panama. Tourism is concentrated in Dolphin Bay, home to a population of resident dolphins. Previous studies have shown that tour boats elicit short-term changes in dolphin behavior and communication; however, the relationship of these responses to the local population’s biology and ecology is unclear. Studying the effects of tour boats on dolphin activity patterns and behavior can provide information about the biological significance of these responses. Here, we investigated the effects of tour boat activity on bottlenose dolphin activity patterns in Bocas del Toro, Panama over 10 weeks in 2014. Markov chain models were used to assess the effect of tour boats on dolphin behavioral transition probabilities in both control and impact scenarios. Effect of tour boat interactions was quantified by comparing transition probabilities of control and impact chains. Data were also used to construct dolphin activity budgets. Markov chain analysis revealed that in the presence of tour boats, dolphins were less likely to stay socializing and were more likely to begin traveling, and less likely to begin foraging while traveling. Additionally, activity budgets for foraging decreased and traveling increased as an effect of tour boat presence. These behavioral responses are likely to have energetic costs for individuals which may ultimately result in population-level impacts. Boat operator compliance with Panamanian whale watching regulations is urgently needed to minimize potential long-term impacts on this small, genetically distinct population and to ensure the future viability of the local tourism industry.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere8804
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020

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