Dolphins, genetics and conservation
This past week saw the identification of yet another new species of dolphin (an Australian humpback dolphin called Sousa sahulensis): http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/03/australian-snubfin-and-humpback-dolphins-at-risk-of-localised-extinction?utm_content=buffer59341&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer
Advances in the use of genetic profiling of dolphins reveals that coastal populations are made up of increasingly smaller and relatively isolated units, rendering them especially susceptible to local extinction.
These fine scale genetic differences will require a fundamental rethink of the way science conceives of conservation. In previous times conservation focussed on large scale units and as long as the general population was not threatened the status of sub groups within the species was not considered very important.
In addition, the new but rapidly advancing field of epigenetics is demonstrating that an organism’s DNA is only part of their genetic story because the environment in which it lives actually determines how the genes function. There is even evidence that the organism’s environment is able to change the very structure of its genes so that their offspring, in essence, inherit their parent’s experiences and environment.
Advances in the study of dolphin culture also reveal behaviours passed from generation to generation which allow them to better adapt to their local environment.
All this points to two conclusions: conserving the diversity of a species means conserving its environments; and that the units of conservation will become ever smaller.
Science still knows very little about the way in which individual animals contribute to the functioning of local dolphin societies but it seems likely that we will find at least some individual dolphins play significant roles.
If (when) the significance of individual dolphins in communities is identified WDC will finally have scientific justification for that which we know to be intrinsically true: every individual dolphin in every dolphin community matters!