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Released August 3, 2005

STUDENTS STUDY DOLPHINS THROUGH SUMMER CLASS AT
SOUTHERN MISS GULF COAST RESEARCH LABORATORY

Ocean Springs– Central Michigan University biology student Libby Draminski has few opportunities to conduct research on dolphins in her home state, as Michigan is not famed as a home for the popular marine mammal.

But that changed after she came to Mississippi in July, on the recommendation of one of her professors, to take a course examining marine mammals in their natural habitat through The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory's Summer Field Program.

The course, titled "Cetacean Behavior and Cognition," is taught by Dr. Stan Kuczaj, chair of the Southern Miss Department of Psychology. It is just one of a variety of classes offered at the undergraduate and graduate level through the GCRL program, giving students opportunities to enhance their classroom experience by exploring the plants, animals and ecology of the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi coast. Many of the classes incorporate field experiences with trips out into the Mississippi Sound aboard the GCRL's oceanographic and fisheries research vessels.

"We've got dolphins - one or two," Draminski shouted out to Kuczaj and her classmates after spotting dorsal fins jutting out of the Gulf water during a recent excursion near Horn Island aboard the GCRL research vessel Hermes. As the day wore on the sightings would steadily increase, highlighted by a brief performance from a group of dolphins jumping in and out of the water nearby and chattering, to the delight of the vessel's crew and passengers.

"It's been awesome," Draminski said of her experience at GCRL. "I thought I might get stuck just reading books, so I didn't expect to come out on the boats that much. But the course is very hands-on.

"Gaining experience is the big thing (by taking the course), which would have been hard to get back home," she said. "There aren't many dolphins in Michigan."

Students enrolled in the two-week course used a variety of methods to monitor and study dolphins, including still photography and video, while keeping a diary of daily activities. Students also listened in on dolphin communication by using a hydrophone, a device that can be lowered into the water, allowing one to listen to dolphin whistles through attached headphones. The communication is recorded, allowing Kuczaj and his students to later examine both the whistles and accompanying activity to determine if there are connections between the two.

Photographs taken of dorsal fins help students follow and observe individual dolphins to look for indications of gender, patterns of social interaction and which ones travel in pairs, among other factors. "The dorsal fin is like a fingerprint," said Deirdre Yeater of Bay St. Louis, a doctoral student in psychology at Southern Miss. "Each one is different, that's how we can identify and track them."

While dolphins have their own language, so do the students in Kuczaj's class when describing the mammals' behaviors and sounds. "Group social ball," or GSB, refers to a tight congregation of dolphins interfacing. This event is typically accompanied by a white lather surfacing above the group, possibly indicating communication. "Fluke out" and "fluke slap" refer to tail movements, the latter judged to be an indication of annoyance, while "chuffing" is when a dolphin engages in forced breathing, possibly as a result of agitation, which one student aboard the Hermes described as a "dolphin sneeze."

Kuczaj has been studying dolphin behavior for more than 16 years and has been teaching the course at GCRL on an occasional basis for the last six years. He has also led a similar study-abroad course in Honduras through the Southern Miss Center for International Education, and his research has received grant funding from the Office of Naval Research and the U.S Department of Commerce.

"Every year, USM is getting to be better known across the country as a great place to study marine mammals," he said. "The Mississippi Sound is a popular spot for dolphins, and it is therefore easy to spot them, sometimes in only three feet of water."

Kuczaj and his students believe studying dolphins is critical to understanding how best for humans and the mammals to coexist, particularly with regard to the coast fishing industry. "We can study human interaction and boat interaction with dolphins (through this course)," Yeater said, noting that often the dolphins will swim alongside the research vessels. "Do they approach, or are they evading (boats)? It's important to know their reaction to us, because this is their home."

Southern Miss Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Jay Grimes, who also serves as director of the GCRL, agrees with Yeater that the research in Kuczaj's class is an important effort. "The Mississippi Gulf Coast is a prime habitat for the bottle-nose dolphin, and for that reason we need to learn more about these wonderful mammals."

David Burke, retired assistant director for lab operations and research scientist at GCRL for more than 35 years, continues to work there part time and joined Kuczaj and his students on their field experience aboard the Hermes. He praised the course as an important element of the university's marine science program. "I'm glad to see it being offered, that this topic is being addressed," he said. "If I were a student again, this is one course I would have definitely taken."

For more information about the GCRL's Summer Field Program, call (228) 872-4223, or call (228) 875-2244, ext. 201. On the Internet visit www.usm.edu/gcrl, and for more information on Kuczaj's dolphin research, visit http://www.usm.edu/psy-kuczaj/

 

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August 4, 2005 2:51 PM