Dr Denise Risch, Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)
RSE Small Research Grant awardee

Unlike the better-known bottlenose and common dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins prefer the deep ocean to coastal waters and are rarely seen by humans. Despite the species being widespread across the North Atlantic and impacted by hunting in the Faroe Islands, very little is known about its spatio-temporal distribution and population size off western Scotland and in the wider Northeast Atlantic. Additionally, there is little understanding of their sounds, and passive acoustic monitoring is critical for studying and contributing to the conservation of many offshore dolphin populations.

Dr Denise Risch, a marine mammal ecologist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), along with colleagues Dr Susannah Calderan and Dr Nienke van Geel, were awarded a Small Research Grant by the RSE to study the unique acoustic repertoire of Atlantic white-sided dolphins for the first time.

Dr Denise Risch. Photograph: LJFPhotography 

Dr Denise Risch said,

Of the nine dolphin species which regularly occur in the North Atlantic, Atlantic white-sided dolphins are the only species for which the acoustic behaviour has not yet been described in the scientific literature. Therefore, we cannot examine the data we already have from national and international acoustic monitoring programmes for their presence. A registry of their sounds is key to unlocking valuable data on their distribution and occurrence so we can understand how this species uses the Northeast Atlantic, particularly around Scotland. Only with that basic understanding can effective conservation initiatives begin and yield successful results. The outputs of this project will not only build a blueprint which can be used to train computer systems to detect these sounds automatically in long-term recordings, but they will also provide a crucial baseline for further studies.”

Dr Susannah Calderan. Photograph: LJFPhotography 

From a conservation perspective, the project findings will be used to inform Scottish Government agencies with a remit to ensure favourable conservation status for this and other dolphin species in Scottish and wider UK waters. This is especially important given current and future plans to expand marine renewable industries – such as offshore wind farms – into deeper and more offshore habitats. The resulting data will also be helpful in assessing the impacts of changing climatic conditions on this offshore marine species.

Dr Denise Risch commented,

The RSE Small Research Grant enabled us to get in touch with and acquire the necessary data from various colleagues and research organisations and to buy the necessary software to analyse the acoustic data in detail. The support enabled cleaning, selecting data with visual species confirmation, and preparing all data for long-term storage. This will make them very useful for follow on projects, such as training machine learning applications. The funds will also enable open-access publication of our results, comprehensively describing the clicks and whistles of the elusive and offshore distributed Atlantic white-sided dolphin.”

You can read more about the project in our Spring 2023 edition of ReSourcE, which focuses on biodiversity – why it’s under threat, why it matters, and what can be done to tackle the biodiversity crisis:

Read ReSourcE Spring 2023

The Spring 2023 edition of ReSourcE focuses on biodiversity – why it’s under threat, why it matters, and what can be done to tackle the biodiversity crisis. From the latest scientific research to innovative conservation projects and policy initiatives across a range of sectors, we look at the current state of biodiversity in Scotland, the UK and internationally, and the efforts being made to protect it.


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