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I wold like to thank Lalina (the journalist) for her collaboration and for facilitating the English version of the article.
THE SECRET LIFE OF BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS
A rare manifestation of inconsolable grief of a mother for her newborn, but also the "controlled" farewell to other community members who lost their battle with life, reveal the multifaceted society of dolphins in Amvrakikos. If we don’t take urgent action to save the bay, one thing is certain: all of us will mourn for the dolphins!
Can animals grieve and be aware of death as humans do? If you have a pet you will definitely answer yes. For science though this answer is not obvious. The relationship of animas with death is a 'forbidden' topic for scientific research -largely because of fear of wrongly attributing human characteristics to animals. However, lately, some experts "dare" to approach it. The observation of different reactions of bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos to the death of members of their group is now the subject for such a "subversive" study. The biologist in charge of the project is speaking at "To Vima" about this rare experience and the problems faced not only by the dolphins but by the whole Gulf of Amvrakikos.
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UNKNOWN ASPECTS OF THE LIFE OF DOLPHINS
by Lalina Fafouti
The newborn dolphin is lying lifeless on the water. Its mother desperately tries to revive it. She lifts it up trying to bring back its breath, touches it with her fins and beak, “calling” at it, but in vain. The little dolphin is dead and she, in despair, seems as if she cannot believe it -it really looks as if she’s grieving.
The scene is heartbreaking, but you probably will not watch it "live". Biologists who have spent decades at sea have never seen such a thing.
Lament of 48 hours!
Joan Gonzalvo Villegas, marine biologist of the Tethys Research Institute (an Italian non-governmental organization specializing in the study of cetaceans), was “lucky” enough to stand witness to this event though. He "fell" into it during his usual survey in the Gulf of Amvrakikos, and not just once. The next day the mother was still there continuing her desperate efforts and mourns. "It seemed as if she could not accept the fact," says the researcher speaking at "To Vima". "This was especially shocking because it meant that the animal behaved this way for at least 48 hours."
The next year Mr. Gonzalvo witnessed a similar incident. A small bottlenose dolphin, two to three months old, apparently ill, swam with difficulty. The other adult members of its team swam around it constantly trying to help it stay on the surface. After a while -about 40 minutes- the little dolphin died. "I expected the mother, or at least the adult dolphin that I thought it was the mother because it was swimming closer to it, to react like the animal we saw the year before," says the biologist. However, this did not happen. Once the corpse sank, the other dolphins left immediately from that point.
That got him thinking. Do dolphins react differently to death depending on the circumstances -just like people? "In the first case," he says "the mother seemed not able to come to terms with the sudden death of her newborn –as would happen to me or to you if you lost someone close to you suddenly, for example in a car accident. In the second case it was like dolphins somehow knew that the calf was about to die and stayed with it in order to help and keep it company till the end. "
Grief and the sense of death are considered to be exclusively human qualities. The exploration of such properties in animals was long a "taboo" for scientific research –a "dangerous" issue that only lately some researchers have begun to approach. "The truth is that it is not that well accepted" answers Gonzalvo. "Because it contains a strong subjective element. Such scenes when you see them you feel it in your skin, it is very difficult to evaluate scientifically what is happening. But this is essentially true for every kind of behavioural study in animals. "
Moreover, as explained, the experiences of this kind are relatively rare. "I am of the very few who have seen something like that," he says, "and even if I keep working the same way for the next thirty years I may not see it ever again '. This not only because the laws of probability do not often bring experts in direct contact with scenes of natural death in nature, but also because the appropriate behaviour for a scientist involved in the conservation of species when facing such an event is usually different from the one this particular biologist decided to adopt.
The gain of non-intervention
"Some might ask why, for instance, in the first case I did not immediately take the dead newborn in order to do an autopsy and find out the causes of death," he says. "But as a scientist working for Tethys, where we are trying to be the least intrusive in our research, my priority was to focus more on recording the behaviour of the dolphins. In addition, I wanted to respect the animal, during what to me was a clear indication of some kind of mourning. I felt it was inappropriate for me to intervene. "
If he had intervened, as he notes, he would not have the opportunity to watch what happened or notice the difference in the reactions of the dolphins in the two events. The question of whether animals –or at least social animals like dolphins– have a special sense of death just like humans would not have been born. "Of course this is only an hypothesis," he stresses.
This hypothesis, however, is being examined and he is gathering evidence preparing a broader study not only about dolphins but also about other species. "There are some relevant published scientific papers and for the last couple of years I have been collecting reports from my colleagues and they are quite a few," he says. "Such behaviours are reported not only in cetaceans but also in other highly evolved mammals like chimpanzees or elephants."
Amvrakikos: the last refuge of bottlenose dolphins
The dolphins of Amvrakikos are not special only because they constitute the subject of an original study. In this place of Greece is observed one of the highest densities of bottlenose dolphins in the Mediterranean –a species that has begun to diminish in the Mediterranean waters because of overfishing and pollution. The population of bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos remained stable in recent years and the area is a protected wetland –it has been included in the Natura 2000 network and has been declared a national park. However, as Gonzalvo notes, this is not a guarantee for their future.
He brings as an example what happened to the neighbouring Inner Archipelago of the Ionian Sea. This region –which includes Eastern Lefkas, Meganissi and Kalamos and is also integrated to the network Natura 2000– was until recently a "paradise" for the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) –a species that was once the most widespread in our sea but today its population has shrunk dramatically, and since 2003 it has been declared endangered in the Mediterranean. As a member of Tethys Research Institute, which under international agreements is monitoring the dolphins in these two areas (during the last years with the support of Earthwatch, OceanCare and RAC/SPA), the biologist has "lived" this story from very close.
"Of 150 common dolphins living in the Archipelago in 1996 the population went to 15 in 2006-2007" he says. “The cause according to all evidence is overfishing that led to the depletion of their food. " As he explains, in the area operate relatively few bottom trawlers and purse seiners, but at an intensive rate and aiming mainly epipelagic fish –such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel. "Epipelagic fish are the main food of the common dolphin, but also of tuna and swordfish, two species that have also been greatly reduced in the region."
Rapid environmental degradation
The bottlenose from Amvrakikos have no such problem. On the contrary, they have plenty of food –industrial fishing is prohibited here– and this is a reason why their population is so dense and stable. "But beware," says Gonzavo, "we are talking about a high population density because we have 150 bottlenose dolphins in a particular area. This does not mean they are very abundant. In biological terms, 150 is nothing. And Amvrakikos may not have the problem of overfishing, but there is a severe problem of environmental degradation. "
This sounds paradoxical in a region which consists the largest national park in Greece and is protected by not just one but four different European and international treaties. As the biologist explains, however, the measures designed for the protection of Amvrakikos are incomplete. For example, measures have been taken to protect the fish by prohibiting industrial fisheries. "Only small-scale fisheries are allowed, therefore from an ecological point of view the stocks in Amvrakikos are fully viable," he says. No measures has been taken though to protect the quality of the water.
"The factors that contribute to environmental degradation in Amvrakikos are many", he points out. "The mouth of the bay is too narrow and too shallow. This is the only connection to the open sea, which means that the water circulation inside the gulf is very reduced. " The two major rivers that arrive to Amvrakikos, Louros and Arachthos, as he notes, have a reduced flow because of dams built along them for irrigation and hydroelectric projects. "Furthermore" he adds " apart from the fact that the input of fresh water from the rivers is reduced, their waters are polluted by fertilizers, heavy metals and other polluting elements."
Eutrophication and hypoxia
Another important issue is eutrophication –the growth of bacteria and algae caused by excessive concentrations of nutrients (such as nitrate and phosphate from fertilizers and detergents that 'fall' in the water) and leads to oxygen depletion. Apart from wastewater, says Gonzalvo, extensive fish farming in the region exacerbates the situation. "The fish farms introduce even more organic material, with food thrown in the water and detritus produced by farmed fish that are crowded in high densities in cages."
The problem of eutrophication and hypoxia, which this implies seems to be growing rapidly in recent decades. "Before 20 years," says the biologist "the University of Patras had conducted a study and found that the waters of Amvrakikos below 40 m depth had almost zero oxygen. They repeated the study two years ago and saw that the water with almost zero oxygen began from 20 meters deep. " This means that 70% of the water of Amvrakikos is dead zone. And the impact is already apparent. Two years ago, the mussels that are grown there were found toxic and unfit for consumption. Officially, the cultivation of mussels, clams and other shellfish –which are the most "sensitive" to water quality– has stopped at the bay.
Direct action by government and citizens
Because of all these problems, although the population of bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos is still stable, Gonzalvo in his last presentation at the International Marine Conservation Congress last May suggested that they should be declared endangered. "If something is not done," he says "bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos will have the fate of the common dolphins of the Archipelago."
This "something", as he stresses, involves not only measures to be taken by the state. The biologist considers equally important the "education" of the public. In this context, as he notes, Tethys participates in the LIFE-Thalassa project with WWF, MOm –Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal– and the Pelagos Institute of Cetacean Research. The most urgent in his opinion is to change attitudes.
"I understand that Greece is not facing its best moment right now to give priority to protecting the environment," he says. "But what I think is crucial is to change the perception of the Greeks for nature. I am also from the Mediterranean, I am Spanish, I am Catalan, it is not that we are much better –the Mediterranean is not the best example of proper environmental management. But I love Greece deeply; I first came here twelve years ago, and it makes me sad that you have a wonderful country, one of the best in the world, but Greeks do not realize it. They take its beauty for granted and assume it’s going to stay like this no matter what we do and think, that even if we humans do not do things right, if we do not look after them, they’re going to stay as they are. Excuse me but they are not. Greece is not the same Greece that I had discovered a decade ago. And if the degradation continues at this rate Greece will not be the same in the coming years. "
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Protection is sought in the Northern Aegean too
Dolphins are protected in Greece under ACCOBAMS, the treaty signed by the countries of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea for the protection of cetaceans. Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sci;ara, director of Tethys Research Institute, was president of the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS for nearly a decade until last year and has a more "global" view of the situation.
The only dolphins officially monitored by Tethys are currently those in the Amvrakikos Gulf and the Inner Ionian Archipelago. This does not mean that these cetaceans, that seem still to hold in our country while they have been decimated in the major part of the Mediterranean, are not facing problems in other parts of Greece.
"We are deeply concerned about the situation of common dolphins, which the last decade have become very rare in the Mediterranean," says Mr. Notarbartolo di Sciara speaking at "To Vima." "We know that there are common dolphins in the Northern Aegean. We do not know how many, we do not know exactly where they are distributed, where their main habitats are, if there are problems with fishing, we know nothing. "
The information comes from fishermen and biologists who work in fish farms in the region of Kavala. Because the common dolphin has been declared endangered throughout the Mediterranean, whatever populations, albeit small, are worthy of protection. "I think it is very important to see what the situation of common dolphins in the Northern Aegean is", he says. "The Northern Aegean region is a productive area compared to most of the Mediterranean because of the rivers, because of the upwelling and oceanographic processes, and I think we should go there and see what happens."
As he says, the means for improving the conditions of the habitat of the dolphins and –our own environment– are there. Last year he prepared for WWF and MOm a strategy for the conservation of cetaceans at a national level, which is just ... waiting to be adopted. "I hope this is done," he says. "I know that the situation is difficult in Greece, but this is not something that will serve as an economic burden because certainly donors will be found for this purpose. I think it is mainly a matter of political will. "