ABUNDANCE OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA COASTAL BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS ESTIMATED FROM TANDEM AERIAL SURVEYS

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Abstract

We describe a tandem aerial survey method for bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) that uses two aircraft and independent observer teams to conduct consecutive surveys of the same coastal strip one hour apart. Alternatively, one aircraft with one observer team surveys the same coastal strip twice over several hours. Using mark-recapture analysis, we corrected survey counts for visibility bias resulting from missing dolphin groups at the surface and submerged groups. Dolphin groups were considered “recaptured” when we determined that both observer teams had detected the same group. This tandem method is highly useful for estimating abundance (and visibility bias) for species where population closure may be assumed between flights. We assumed population closure between flights and matched groups using geographic location, group size, and expected travel rates. We derive a new variance estimator of population size which incorporates group-size variability commonly encounteted in cetacean surveys. From six tandem surveys conducted from 1991 to 1994, we estimated the abundance of southern California coastal bottlenose dolphins to be between 78 (95% CI 60-102) and 271 (240-306) animals, with an average of 140 (128-154). Variability in abundance estimates is likely due to seasonal and interannual movement of animals along the California and Baja California coast. Abundance estimates from tandem surveys averaged 53% higher than dolphin counts obtained from individual survey flights, demonstrating the importance of correcting for visibility bias.

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