UNCW Professors Working to Prevent Extinction of Rare River Dolphin

Ann Pabst works with student to examine stranded mammal

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

WILMINGTON, NC - Professors Ann Pabst and William McLellan from the University of North Carolina Wilmington have been studying a marine mammal that is foreign to our coastal waters - the Irrawaddy River Dolphin.  Native to Southeast Asia's Mekong River, the world's tenth longest river, this genetically isolated population has a surviving population of approximately 85 individuals and could potentially be the next mammal to become extinct.

A year ago, McLellan was sought out by the World Wildlife Fund to review historic stranding cases from the Cambodian Irrawaddy River Dolphin based on his experience with strandings. McLellan and Pabst coordinate the Marine Mammal Stranding Program within the Department of Biology & Marine Biology at UNCW. This program consists of students and researchers who respond to and investigate strandings along the North Carolina coast.

"These strandings provide a window of opportunity to help understand how these mammals make a living.  If the marine mammal is found dead, we aim to figure out the cause of death," said Pabst.

Along with undergraduates and graduate students from UNCW, Pabst and McLellan attended the international Marine Mammal Conference last November.  During this conference, McLellan attended a meeting concerning the current status of the Irrawaddy River Dolphin.  While at the meeting, the working group decided it would be beneficial if they planned a trip to Cambodia during the middle of January 2012. They saw the Cambodia trip as an opportunity to analyze long-term stranding data to look for trends and help offer suggestions for future field techniques.

"The Cambodia trip helped gather people with different levels of expertise to collaborate over this issue," explained Pabst. While on the trip, they found that fishing nets in the Mekong River were entangling the adult dolphins. McLellan added, "Fishing net entanglements are a common occurrence found during the stranding work."

During the trip, governmental agencies signed a declaration for commitment in conserving the species. The Mekong River is a major trading route that links several countries together as well as providing a majority of the public their main source of protein. Due to the Cambodians love, need and history with the river, they are in agreement to help prevent extinction of species by opening themselves to new innovative ways of fishing.

"The declaration laid out the future of science by help of a broad international community. We saw this as an opportunity in trying to save the species before extinction," said McLellan.

Pabst and McLellan both feel that the Marine Mammal Stranding Program at UNCW helps to illustrate that could be done by UNCW to help conserve future species from becoming extinct.  By training people to become aware of the world, biology, and human and societal needs this could create a greater awareness in conserving species such as the Irrawaddy River Dolphin.