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The Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni, ‘snubfin dolphin’ hereafter) and Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis, ‘humpback dolphin’ hereafter) are poorly-understood species of dolphin whose global distribution is restricted to shallow coastal and estuarine waters of northern Australia and southern New Guinea.

Here, we investigate the population genetic structure and relative abundance of these two species at selected study sites in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia. Additionally, we investigate the application of passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) as an effective technique for monitoring these species in the remote waters of the Kimberley region, with potential applications across northern Australia.

Chaussures Homme J.M. Weston
Other Details: 

Kimberly Marine Research Program: Project 1.2.4
Location: Cygnet Bay, Cone Bay, Roebuck Bay, North Kimberley
Project Leader: Lars Bejder, Murdoch University
Telephone: 9360 6582
Email: ast at 14/01/2019 (formerly

Final Report

Relative abundance, population genetic structure and acoustic monitoring of Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins in regions within the Kimberley_WAMSI KMRP Report 1.2.4_Brown et al 2017_FINAL

Project Summary

Aims of the project

  1. Population genetic structure: Collect tissue samples from free-ranging dolphins and use nuclear and mitochondrial genetic markers to examine population genetic structure and gene flow between several locations within the Kimberley region.
  2. Relative abundance: Conduct boat-based surveys and photo-identification to obtain information on species composition, group size and composition, and encounter rates of snubfin and humpback dolphins at several locations in the Kimberley region.
  3. Passive acoustic monitoring: Develop Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) techniques for snubfin and humpback dolphins within the Kimberley by: (i) developing an understanding of the underwater soundscape; and (ii) correlating acoustic and visual observations of dolphins to validate species presence, identify acoustic repertoire and examine vocalisation rates.

Proposed Methods

  • Use small vessels as platforms for visual surveys of dolphins, collecting data on location, behaviour and group composition of dolphins, in addition to high quality image of dorsal fins for individual identification purposes (photo-ID). Obtain small skin/tissue samples from free-ranging dolphins using a remote biopsy darting system. Samples will subsequently be analysed to determine sex and measures of gene flow between populations from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA markers.
  • Deploy noise loggers (underwater noise recorders) on moorings at selected sites (Roebuck and Cygnet Bay) to record dolphin sounds and analyse other sources of ambient underwater noise.
  • Deploy compact acoustic recorders on temporary moorings to record dolphin vocalisations in parallel with visual observations from an elevated observation platform (moored ship in Roebuck Bay; elevated land in Cone Bay).
  • Collaborate with, and provide training to, Traditional Owners and Marine Park/Wildlife Managers.

Field Work Duration 2014-2016

  • Boat-based surveys for relative abundance and genetic sample collection took place in Cone Bay (Sep 2014; Sep-Oct 2015), the Cambridge Gulf (Aug 2016) and Prince Regent River (Sep 2016).
  • Acoustic data collection took place in Cygnet Bay (May 2014), Roebuck Bay (Jul 2014; Sep-Oct 2014) and Cone Bay (Sep-Oct 2015).
  • Data collection at the Prince Regent River was facilitated by collaboration with the Dambimangari-Parks and Wildlife Joint Management Team for Lalang-garram/Camden Sound Marine Park.



This project and related work within the region has resulted in a variety of outcomes of potential use to managers and scientists; these include:

  • Improved understanding of the distribution and relative abundance of snubfin and humpback dolphins at several remote locations in the Kimberley, assisting in the identification of important habitats, management of threats and providing a benchmark for future research and monitoring in the region.
  • An improved understanding of the genetic connectivity of snubfin and humpback dolphin populations in north-western Australian waters and the appropriate geographic scales at which to manage them.
  • Characterisation of the underwater soundscape at two locations in the Kimberley.
  • Illustration that PAM provides a method of effectively detecting snubfin and humpback dolphins in high-use areas, and an increased information base from which to further develop PAM towards more quantitative and species-specific monitoring.
  • Results which will assist in the identification of important habitats, management of threats and which provide a knowledge base for future research and monitoring in the region.
  • Development of positive and effective relationships and collaborations between researchers, indigenous rangers and regional wildlife management staff.

Research Articles

  1. Smith F, Allen SJ, Bejder L, Brown AM (2018) Shark bite injuries on three inshore dolphin species in tropical northwestern Australia. Marine Mammal Science 34: 87-99. doi: 10.1111/mms.12435

  2. Marley SA, Salgado Kent C, Erbe C, Thiele, D (2017) A Tale of Two Soundscapes: Comparing the Acoustic Characteristics of Urban Versus Pristine Coastal Dolphin Habitats in Western Australia. Acoustics Australia. 45 (2): pp. 1-11. doi:org/10.1007/s40857-017-0106-7

  3. Brown A, Bejder L, Pollock K,Allen S (February 2016) Site-Specific Assessments of the Abundance of Three Inshore Dolphin Species to Inform Conservation and Management Frontiers in Marine Science http://dx.doi:10.3389/fmars.2016.00004

  4. Brown A, Bejder L,Parra G, Cagnazzi D, Hunt T, Smith J, Allen S (November 2015) Sexual Dimorphism and Geographic Variation in Dorsal Fin Features of Australian Humpback Dolphins, Sousa sahulensis Advances in Marine Biology doi:10.1016/bs.amb.2015.08.002


  1. Smith J et al. Relative abundance, population genetic structure and passive acoustic monitoring of Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins in regions within the Kimberley. 2017 WAMSI Research Conference (video of presentation) Presentation slides
  2. Brown A.M et al. Relative abundance, population genetic structure and passive acoustic monitoring of Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins in regions within the Kimberley WAMSI Presentation: Parks and Wildlife, Kensington (6 Feb 2017)(video of presentation below) (presentation slides)
  3. Bejdar L. Relative abundance, genetic connectivity and acoustic monitoring of Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins in the Kimberley (2015) WAMSI Research Conference (presentation audio)  (presentation slides)


  1. Scientists learn more about Kimberley dolphin populations (WAMSI Bulletin February 2017)
  2. Kimberley dolphin project covers new ground (WAMSI Bulletin October 2016)
  3. Kimberley dolphins vulnerable to human activity (ABC Kimberley)
  4. ABC TV News story by reporter Natalie Jones
  5. Cone Bay proves reliable for acoustic recordings of humpback dolphins (WAMSI)