Aerial abundance estimates for two sympatric dolphin species at a regional scale using distance sampling and density surface modeling

Holly C. Raudino*, Phil J. Bouchet, Corrine Douglas, Ryan Douglas, Kelly Waples

*Corresponding author for this work

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Monitoring wildlife populations over scales relevant to management is critical to supporting conservation decision-making in the face of data deficiency, particularly for rare species occurring across large geographic ranges. The Pilbara region of Western Australia is home to two sympatric and morphologically similar species of coastal dolphins—the Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) and Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis)—both of which are believed to be declining in numbers and facing increasing pressures from the combined impacts of environmental change and extensive industrial activities. The aim of this study was to develop spatially explicit models of bottlenose and humpback dolphin abundance in Pilbara waters that could inform decisions about coastal development at a regional scale. Aerial line transect surveys were flown from a fixed-wing aircraft in the austral winters of 2015, 2016, and 2017 across a total area of 33,420 km2. Spatio-temporal patterns in dolphin density were quantified using a density surface modeling (DSM) approach, accounting for imperfect detection as well as both perception and availability bias. We estimated the abundance of bottlenose dolphins at 3,713 (95% CI = 2,679–5,146; average density of 0.189 ± 0.046 SD individuals per km2) in 2015, 2,638 (95% CI = 1,670–4,168; 0.159 ± 0.135 individuals per km2) in 2016 and 1,635 (95% CI = 1,031–2,593; 0.101 ± 0.103 individuals per km2) in 2017. Too few humpback dolphins were detected in 2015 to model abundance, but their estimated abundance was 1,546 (95% CI = 942–2,537; 0.097 ± 0.03 individuals per km2) and 2,690 (95% CI = 1,792–4,038; 0.169 ± 0.064 individuals per km2) in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Dolphin densities were greatest in nearshore waters, with hotspots in Exmouth Gulf, the Dampier Archipelago, and Great Sandy Islands. Our results provide a benchmark on which future risk assessments can be based to better understand the overlap between pressures and important dolphin habitats in tropical northwestern Australia.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1086686
Number of pages13
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jan 2023


  • Ecology and Evolution
  • Aerial survey
  • Cetacean
  • Conservation
  • Distribution
  • Management
  • Population size


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