Featured Image Credit: Will Rayment
By Jessica Kittel
Hector’s (Cephalorhynchus hectori hectori) and Māui (Cephalorhynchus hectori Maui) dolphins are just about as adorable as adorable can be. According to the World Wildlife Fund, not only are they one of the smallest cetaceans, they also have a dorsal fin shaped like a Mickey Mouse ear! Hehe. These charismatic little critters can only be found in the shallow, coastal waters of New Zealand.
They’re not only small in body size but also in population size. The Māui dolphin is actually one of the world’s rarest marine dolphins with only around 63 adults still existing in the wild population. This puts them in the “critically endangered” category on the IUCN red list. Hector’s dolphin populations are also struggling and while not quite to the point of being considered critically endangered, are still classified as endangered.
You might be curious why this dolphin seems to be named after a Hawaiian island. The name for this cetacean is actually based on the Maori indigenous name for the North Island in New Zealand. The North Island is called Te Ika a Māui.
Both the Hector’s and the Māui dolphins are severely threatened by fisheries bycatch. World Wildlife Fund has reported that over 95 percent of unnatural Māui dolphin deaths are the result of entanglement and drowning in gillnet and trawl fishing nets. Reports have even stated that, based on sensitivity analysis, the Māui dolphin will likely go extinct within the next few decades if all net fishing isn’t banned in the Māui dolphin habitat range.
To combat this daunting threat, scientists are getting creative. Researchers are hoping to use new thermal detection technology to help these little guys and gals out. Martin Stanley, with Ocean Life Survey, led the study that tested the use of thermal imaging cameras in identifying the dolphins underwater, according to scoop.co.nz. That Mickey Mouse ear shaped dorsal fin comes in handy when trying to identify these dolphins because it is so distinctively unique on the thermal cameras. Looking for that dorsal fin allowed scientists to easily distinguish Māui and Hector’s dolphins from other dolphin species found in the area.
There’s also potential for these cameras to be useful on commercial fishing boats that use the Hector’s and Māui dolphin habitat range. This technology could prove to be extra advantageous because it works just as well at night (when they can’t be seen by the naked eye) as it does during the day.
Researchers are also hoping that by using this technology at night they will be able to get a better understanding of the dolphins’ nocturnal behavior.