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Dolphin Tales

A former Sherwood resident is at the forefront of research of rough-tooth dolphins at OSU's Marine Mammal Institute


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO COURTESY OF RENEE ALBERTSON - JACKPOT -- Renee Albertson, left, looks on as Scott Baker, an OSU professor with the Marine Mammal Institute, aims a biopsy gun at bottlenose dolphins in Samoa last August. To the right is Juney, a Samoan native who helped them out. Below, left, spinner dolphins in French Polynesia. Below,  Albertson in Oahu. When most of us think of dolphins, we think of bottle-nosed - the most common dolphin species often seen at SeaWorld or other aquariums. Even "Flipper," the most famous dolphin from the 1960s' television series, was a bottle-nosed dolphin.

But for Renee Albertson, who grew up in Sherwood, it's the rarer rough-toothed dolphins she has found fascinating ever since she was doing an internship observing hump-back whales with renowned whale researcher Michael Poole.

Up to that point, Albertson had never seen one of the creatures up close and was curious about them.

"They were so funny looking," recalled Albertson, a doctoral student at Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute. "They're a little bit smaller, and they look reptilian and lizard-like."

Albertson began asking questions about the creatures that lack the pronounced forehead of their bottle-nose cousins and discovered that not much was known about them.

Since then, Albertson has traveled from Hawaii to Tahiti studying the mammals, discovering that they are more likely to be found in the open ocean instead of congregating close to shore like many other species. They swim in deeper waters too, usually between 3,000 and 6,000 feet deep.

Over the last several years, Albertson has continued her interest in both whales and dolphins.

This past spring, Albertson was in French Polynesia, specifically along the Marquesas Archipelago, to study whales and dolphins after receiving a grant from the Ministry of the Environment in French Polynesia.

"In the grant, we were looking for any and all of them," said Albertson, who was accompanied by both researcher Poole and Marc Oremus, a French research biologist. "I was really hopeful we would see rough-tooth dolphins, but we didn't."

The trio ended up visiting six different islands, in one of the most isolated island groups in the world.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF RENEE ALBERTSON - Renee Albertson and other researchers spotte spinner dolphins in French Polynesia. "I think we were really happy with the diversity of species and the number of samples we were able to collect," she said. "I think the big highlight was we were hoping to encounter melon-headed whales. We got over 100 samples of melon-headed whales."

She wrote a blog of her trip, updating it regularly, especially when something significant happened:

"This morning the south shore of Nuku Hiva was as busy with dolphins as the Los Angeles freeway is with cars! Four dolphin encounters, one right after the other: Rush Hour Marquesas style! A school of spinner dolphins, followed by another group of spotted dolphins, and lastly a large school of melon-headed whales." - April 23 blog entry

In the end, they encountered six dolphin and one whale species, collecting 230 biopsy samples. (Those biopsies are conducted by using a biopsy dart rifle, which takes a small chunk of skin the size of eraser out of the mammal.)

"We never come in (direct) contact with the animals," Albertson pointed out. "We never have to capture them."

In addition, the trio took more than 20,000 photos of five dolphin species. Photos can identify the unique dorsal fin markings, which along with some genetic work can help identify an individual dolphin.

"This morning the weather conditions prevented us from going out on the boat. But for the first time in what locals say may be almost 20 years, spinner dolphins came into Taiohae Bay, so we conducted land-based surveys in the morning and afternoon to observe these dolphins. There were approximately 40 dolphins (and one very active calf!)." - April 25 blog entry

"It was pretty cool," Albertson said of her encounter with the spinner dolphins. While not entirely sure, Albertson has a hypothesis that the dolphins had traveled so close to the bay that day because killer whales (which prey upon spinners) were nearby.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF RENEE ALBERTSON - Renee Albertson relaxes on a beach in Oahu. Albertson said she feels lucky to have worked with researchers such as Poole and Oremus.

"I feel Michael (Poole) has given me a huge opportunity in all of this. I should say he's put a lot of faith in me, and I appreciate that," she said. "We just make a good team together, the three of us."

Currently, Albertson is writing a proposal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asking to change how rough-tooth dolphins are managed.

"It will basically allow them more protection," she said, pointing out that some Hawaiian fishermen shoot the mammals because they steal their fish.

Her hope is to ensure that they are managed as separate populations instead of one large population.

Based on Albertson's research, there are a total of 4,000 rough-tooth dolphins living in Hawaii with 3,000 off the coast of Kauai alone with satellite tags showing that they are not traveling far out to the ocean.

Meanwhile, Albertson said she hasn't slowed down with her research, taking a summer trip to Samoa, which was made possible by a PEW Charitable Trust grant pursued by her adviser, Scott Baker. That trip resulted in locating a myriad of spinner dolphins, bottle-nosed dolphins, a beaked whale, pilot whales and humpback whales. Although they spotted some rough-toothed dolphins, the dolphins were not very cooperative, with the researchers noting at times they were like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

"That's just the story of my life with the rough-tooth dolphins," Albertson said of the creatures' elusiveness.

She recently co-authored a paper along with Poole on rough-toothed dolphins for the "Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology." The paper was the first genetic study of the mammals that showed they are an insular animal.

"I was very excited," Albertson said of her first publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

She is currently working on a paper on humpback whales where she's the lead author.

Now Albertson is hoping to finish her Ph.D. in no more than two years, and she ultimately wants to teach.

"I would really love to teach in a small university," she said, adding that she wants to stay in the Portland area.




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