pinkdolphinsThe Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin was brought to the attention of the scientific community by Trent professor of Biology, John Wang, in 2004. Since then, Trent graduate and undergraduate students have been assisting in studying two populations of pink dolphins in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Trent graduate student of Biology, Jordan Hoffman, who studies the bioacoustic patterns of these pink dolphins, says that there are many names for the dolphins including Chinese White Dolphins or Taiwanese Pink Dolphins, or just pink dolphins.

Pink dolphins are born grey, get spotted, then become more pink. In Hong Kong they are known to be bright pink. One suggestion is that the females are the brightest pink, but Jordan reminds us that it “kinda depends on what light you look at them in.” Since they are only beginning to be studied, there is no conclusive reason for their pinkness. The proper name is Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin because populations are found all the way to India to Australia and even as far as South Africa.

Jordan was part of a pink dolphin field course offered by Trent. The course, started by John Wang, is for several university biology departments across Ontario and allows students to study two populations of pink dolphins in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Trent professor of Biology, Brad White, who specializes in the North Atlantic Right Whale, was a professor of John Wang’s at McMaster. He mentions that the course is “not a cheap course, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill experience” either, with a cost of about $3,000 for undergrads. The course is usually comprised of about three or so Trent students and twenty or so students from other Ontario universities. Many undergrads come back to Trent as graduate students to continue researching this rare population of coastal dolphins.

“It’s great to think of a land-locked university having this much marine biology going on,” Brad says.

The research going on in Taiwan (an island of 30 million, about the size of Vancouver Island) is in an area on the west coast (facing China), which is “one of the most heavily industrialized areas of the world,” according to Jordan. He continues, “Twenty kilometres to the north of us we have the world’s number one point source polluter of carbon dioxide and then twenty kilometres south of us we have a plastics factory that won the Black Planet award for the worst polluter in 2008.”

This is dangerous because the pink dolphins are a coastal species and stay around two to three kilometres from shore. So, human coastal activity has a direct impact on pink dolphin life.
Some of Jordan’s bioacoustic research has found  that construction noise and boat noise can drown out pink dolphin whistles used for communication. Much of the research has to do with the pink dolphins relation to where they are on the coast and who is with them.

Expansion projects like the third runway being put in at Hong Kong Airport or the coal fire plant that produces power for the plastics factory are not only “impacting on pink dolphin territory,” but impacting their ability to communicate and congregate as well. Individual dolphins are catalogued and identified based on spot patterns and different markings. Once individual dolphins are identified, researchers can see what social bonds are being formed and map out where social bonds are formed.

“By doing that,” Brad says, “It’s the same as looking at your friends on Facebook. Who knows who, who actually sees who, when.”

Brad is happy to see that “environmentalists have coalesced around the pink dolphin to try to prevent as much loss of this animal. Because it’s a cute dolphin… it’s actually a pretty pink dolphin.” The World Wildlife Fund has issued a stamp with the pink dolphin on it and according to Jordan, in Hong Kong “the dolphins are always in the newspaper.”

The plastics factory in Taiwan makes plastic for North American products, so Brad reminds us that “when you’re buying that plastic stuff, it’s at the expense of the coastline of Taiwan.”
Industrialization at the cost of the coast is being resisted by the youth in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “If you had been to Taiwan previously you wouldn’t have thought that any economic development would have been halted, by a pink dolphin. The dollar will not be the only driving force in the Taiwanese and Hong Kong communities.”

The pink dolphin research at Trent is not gathering specific evidence to fuel the ongoing environmentalist push, but it is raising the international notoriety of the pink dolphin by studying them. While both Brad and Jordan keep their research separate from ethical concerns, they both admit to having personal intuitions about the dolphins.

Brad describes them as having complex social structures and “clearly dolphins are communicating at a sophisticated level.”

“I am obviously lucky to work with wild dolphins,” Jordan says. “Obviously you don’t want to see captive dolphins, when you have also seen the range [acoustically] they have in the wild.”

Be sure to check out the Natural Resources DNA Profiling & Forensic Centre’s website to check out all of the research (both terrestrial and aquatic) going on at the DNA Complex.