Social structure of Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis, following environmental disturbance and demographic changes



Extreme environmental events and demographic changes can have variable effects on the social structure of animal populations. This study compared the social structure of a community of Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas before and after two hurricanes. Approximately 36% of the individuals were lost, with no subsequent increase in immigration. The majority of the social structure characteristics were consistent with results from a long-term study covering the previous 12 yr, including community structure with definitive social clusters, sex preferences and overall association patterns. However some changes occurred, though still constrained within sex preferences. Posthurricane there was a decrease in social differentiation and increased cohesion within clusters and across age class. Males retained or made new first order alliances, however, only one second order alliance was evident, revealing a simplified alliance structure. Juvenile individuals made alliance level associations, unprecedented from long-term analysis. Although other studies have shown stark restructuring, this study showed that less drastic changes within overall social structure stability can occur. Persistence and evolutionary changes in populations through environmental and/or demographic perturbations may depend on the social structure of a population or community. Understanding the processes involved in social development is paramount for conservation of diverse populations.