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5 questions with Lauren Rust, Executive Director of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network

A breakthrough in marine science sheds light on a novel dolphin species thriving in Charleston’s coastal waters.

New Dolphin Species - Tamanend's Bottlenose Dolphin

Newly Tamanend’s Bottlenose Dolphin species found in Charleston’s waters sparks excitement.

Photo by Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network

Newsflash: The dolphins that you see in the Charleston rivers are not ordinary, they’re rare and only exist here.

Meet Lauren Rust, the Executive Director of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, a leading figure in the recent discovery of a new dolphin species. Her expertise and dedication have been instrumental in uncovering this groundbreaking revelation.

We sat down with her to discuss her involvement in this exciting breakthrough.

What is the identity of this newly discovered species?

The newfound species is named Tamanend’s Bottlenose Dolphin, scientifically classified as Tursiops erebennus.

Can you provide an overview of the recent discovery of the new dolphin species?

The remarkable finding emerged from a comprehensive study involving stranded dolphins along the Southeast coast, particularly in South Carolina. Our region operates a dedicated stranding program, responding to instances of sick, injured, deceased, or entangled dolphins and whales. Over a decade, we collected samples from animals found washed up on the shore or deceased.

Our investigation incorporated genetic analysis, skull measurements, and examination of the vertebral column. By comparing these stranded dolphins with offshore species, we identified distinct variations. This thorough process revealed that what was once thought to be a single common Bottlenose dolphin species in our vicinity actually consists of two separate species.

The dolphins traveling between South Carolina and Georgia are of the new species found in river systems and inshore areas. Meanwhile, the offshore dolphins, are much larger due to their open ocean habitat, represent the original species. This adaptation to different environments likely led to the development of the smaller, new species in shallower waters over time.

How might this discovery influence public awareness + marine conservation efforts?

Unlike many places, our locality boasts a population of dolphins that inhabit a relatively small territory year-round— around 300 dolphins. These dolphins are born and bred in Charleston, living their entire lives within these waters. This situation is comparable to safeguarding a group of 300 white tigers; their limited numbers warrant heightened protection.

In the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, one can consistently encounter the same dolphins, as they tend to occupy defined areas. The potential risks they face, such as oil spills or diseases, are compounded by their slow reproductive rate, birthing a calf every few years starting at around 10 years old. Beyond their significance to our local environment, dolphins hold substantial economic and ecological importance, contributing to ecotourism and maintaining the aquatic ecosystem’s balance.

This newfound species demands community-led preservation efforts, as human activities like hand feeding, entanglement in fishing gear, boat collisions, and marine pollution pose severe threats. Their pivotal role atop the food chain means that any disruption could reverberate throughout the entire ecosystem, affecting both the marine world and human interactions.

How can the public, local communities, and policymakers contribute to the conservation of this new dolphin species?

Valuable information can be accessed on our website, fostering awareness about the species’ presence and vulnerability to human impact. Elevating community engagement is pivotal; individuals can serve as advocates by adhering to regulations + federal protection laws, including refraining from feeding or harassing the dolphins. Spreading the excitement and rarity of this new species enhances the shared responsibility for its safeguarding.

What are your future plans for studying and monitoring this new dolphin species? Are there any upcoming projects or initiatives?

While we’re developing plans, particularly regarding our stranding program, which was instrumental in sourcing the samples for this discovery, no definitive initiatives are set. Our hotline (800-922-5431) remains pivotal; it relies on public reporting to aid distressed dolphins, showcasing the significance of community engagement in our efforts.