Discovering the secrets of Australian dolphins

guido-parraGrowing up on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Guido Parra (pictured) has been fascinated with sea creatures for as long as he can remember.

Now, at the age of 38, he is applying his academic expertise to better protect Australia’s marine mammals from the threats of habitat degradation, pollution and other human impacts.

“I pretty much lived at the beach when I was a child so I’ve always been fascinated with marine creatures, especially the larger ones,” the Flinders University lecturer in marine mammals, birds and reptiles, and animal behaviour, said.

“I’ve always had an inquisitive mind and got pleasure from discovering how things work, so when I finished university my motivation was to find out new things about marine mammals and apply that knowledge to solve conservation problems,” he said.

Since migrating to Australia in 1999, Dr Parra has dedicated most of his professional life to researching the ecology, behaviour and evolution of Australian dolphins, including the rare humpback and snubfin dolphins – and more recently the South Australian common and bottlenose dolphins.

Breaking new ground in a relatively unknown field of work, Dr Parra has provided most of the current scientific information behind the conservation and management of Australian humpback and snubfin dolphins, including abundance, population structure, habitat use, movement patterns and threats.

He is now involved in a new partnership with the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) to gather critical baseline information about the ecology of common dolphins using aerial surveys, distance sampling, population genetics and spatial modelling.

Funded by the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, the project will provide insights into the ecology and vulnerabilities of common dolphins in South Australia to changes in environmental conditions and anthropogenic activities, with data expected to be available later this year.

The study is the first stage of a long-term commitment to whale and dolphin research in South Australia as part of the state’s new Cetacean, Ecology, Behaviour and Evolution Lab (CEBEL), a joint initiative of Flinders, SARDI and Marine Innovation South Australia.

Dr Parra, who is leading the Flinders-based lab with colleague Dr Luciana Möller, said wildlife agencies were currently unable to provide effective management solutions for the common dolphin given the lack of basic information about the species.

He said research was critical to the preservation of dolphins and the wider marine ecosystem.

“South Australia’s coastal, estuarine and marine environments sustain some of the most biologically diverse marine mammal fauna in Australia,” Dr Parra said.

“As top marine predators, dolphins play an important role in the structure and functioning of these marine ecosystems so it’s very important we look after them if we want to preserve the functionality and biodiversity of marine ecosystems.”

Dr Parra’s marine research has received one of 10 Flinders Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Early Career Researchers, an annual program which aims to recognise and reward individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the University since finishing their PhD.

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