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The 2017 WDC Bharathi Viswanathan Award

In 2013, WDC launched the Bharathi Viswanathan Award for Innovative and Non-Invasive research with the intention of showcasing non-invasive research methodologies, highlighting the fact that many of these methods provide scientific data of excellent quality, whilst also promoting the development of innovative and non-invasive approaches towards studying whales and dolphins.

Yet again we were very impressed by the variety and quality of entries for this award in 2017. After a great deal of consideration we are thrilled to announce that in 2017, the Award will be split between two quite different projects. Anna Bruniche-Olsen will be studying the effectiveness of environmental DNA in seawater for inferring gray whale population characteristics whilst Shambhu Paudel will be designing an effective conservation plan for the remaining (and endangered) Ganges River dolphins in Nepal.

Introducing Anna Brueniche-Olsen - "Inferring gray whale population characteristics from environmental DNA in seawater."

Anna grew up in Copenhagen and has always been passionate about environmental and animal conservation. Undertaking her PhD in Australia working on conservation genetics of Tasmanian devils led her to undertake a Postdoc at Purdue studying gray whale genomics as she finds whales and their adaptation to the marine environment fascinating.

Anna Brueniche-Olsen will be using e-DNA to study gray whales in Baja.

Effective conservation is often guided by parameters such as genetic diversity and population size. Unfortunately, obtaining samples for genetic studies remains a logistically and economically challenge for many cetaceans. This project will use non-invasive sampling of DNA collected from seawater—environmental DNA (eDNA)—to determine population characteristics of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Gray whales were severely impacted during commercial whaling and although the eastern Pacific population recovered, the western Pacific population is ‘critically endangered’. 

Molecular studies of whales have traditionally been conducted using DNA from skin biopsy samples, which may cause harm and distress to the animals. A non-invasive alternative to biopsy sampling is to sample DNA from the organism's environment. All organisms shed DNA in the form of dead skin cells, saliva, urine, faeces etc. Scientists can utilize this eDNA to obtain information on genetic diversity and population demography. 

The aim of this project is to develop a non-invasive eDNA methodology for population genetic studies of whales. Specifically, we will use eDNA to infer population characteristics (e.g., genetic diversity, population structure and population sizes) of gray whales in the waters off of Baja, Mexico. If our population genetic estimates in the eastern gray whale are validated, we hope a) to use eDNA for annual monitoring of the eastern gray whale population and b) to extend this research to monitor the critically endangered western gray whale population. 

This proof-of-concept pilot project will provide insights into gray whale population structure, gene flow and population dynamics. Ultimately, our approach could be applied to: (i) monitor gray whale genetic diversity, (ii) address key issues of gray whale conservation (e.g., presence/absence of gray whales, gene flow patterns, and changes in population size), and (iii) inform conservation efforts. We hope that this study will contribute to the improvements to sampling and laboratory methodology for eDNA, that it may complement visual and acoustic surveys, and that it will inspire other cetacean researchers to use non-invasive eDNA-based detection systems in their work.

Introducing Shambhu Paudel - "Using Photo-ID to understand populations size, geographic range and social structure of endangered Ganges river dolphins in Nepal."

It was whilst undertaking his MSc in Conservation that Shambhu learned of the plight of the Ganges River dolphin in Nepal. This made him determined to do something to help and he has since dedicated his time to help this tiny population of less than 30 individuals, in only three river systems, recover. He has recently developed a 4 year PhD project through the University of Arizona (and by being a WWF-US Russell E Train Fellow) for the conservation of freshwater river dolphins in Nepal as an indicator of river system health. 

Shambhu Paudel is one of the 2017 Award winners

Never before had photo-id been used to assess this population of dolphins however after trialling it and revealing that individual dolphins can be identified and re-sighted, Shambhu believes that it could be a reliable approach to determining the exact number of individuals in Nepalese river systems. Photo-id will also enable Shambhu to learn more about any health issues that the dolphins may have as a result of anthropogenic and environmental threats. 

“With the support of WDC, we will explore possible health implications to better understand the population status, behaviours and additional information about river dolphin ecology in two Nepalese river systems - the Karnali and the Sapta Koshi.”

Designing an effective conservation plan for the remaining individuals of Ganges River dolphins in Nepalese waterways, requires a precise understanding of abundance, site fidelity, range of the population which is currently fragmented by linear infrastructure, behaviour and social relationships and environmental and anthropogenic threats. Where possible, the cause of lesions observed in the river dolphin population will be investigated as they may serve as an indication of other underlying anthropogenic or environmental threats to the population.

The yellow circle indicates the location of a barrage constructed across the river.

We aim to deliver a reliable abundance estimate, information on group dynamics, range, behaviour (fig 3) and potential health concerns (fig 2), required for the Government of Nepal to support a conservation management plan for the river dolphins in Nepal.