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Severe Karenia brevis red tides influence juvenile bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) behavior in Sarasota Bay, Florida

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Abstract

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are natural stressors in the coastal environment that may be increasing in frequency and severity. This study investigates whether severe red tide blooms, caused by Karenia brevis, affect the behavior of resident coastal bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida through changes to juvenile dolphin activity budgets, ranging patterns, and social associations. Behavioral observations were conducted on free-ranging juvenile dolphins during the summer months of 2005–2007, and behavior during red tide blooms was compared to periods of background K. brevis abundance. We also utilized dolphin group sighting data from 2004 to 2007 to obtain comparison information from before the most severe recent red tide of 2005 and incorporate social association information from adults in the study area. We found that coastal dolphins displayed a suite of behavioral changes associated with red tide blooms, including significantly altered activity budgets, increased sociality, and expanded ranging behavior. At present, we do not fully understand the mechanism behind these red tide-associated behavioral effects, but they are most likely linked to underlying changes in resource availability and distribution. These behavioral changes have implications for more widespread population impacts, including increased susceptibility to disease outbreaks, which may contribute to unusual mortality events during HABs.

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