Chiloé Small Cetacean Project

To promote the survival of dolphins in Chile by means of research and environmental education


Limited data exist on any aspect of the biology of Chilean dolphins (C. eutropia, L. australis, P. spinipennis), which are endemic to the inshore waters of Chile. Peale’s dolphins and Burmeister’s porpoises have a more wide-spread distribution in coastal South America, but have been studied in only a handful of locations. Most data on Burmeister’s porpoises stem from hunted, by-caught or stranded specimens with few observations of live animals. All three species have been taken extensively for bait in commercial fisheries, and for human consumption. Current main conservation concerns for their populations in Chile arise from incidental catches in near-shore gillnet fisheries and from progressive degradation of critical habitat. To date, the conservation status of these species cannot be evaluated due to the paucity of key biological information (i.e. all rated as data deficient by the IUCN).


Aquaculture activities (farming of non-native salmon and mussels) have been expanding in coastal waters of southern Chile at a rate unrivalled elsewhere. Aquaculture activities can impact cetaceans directly (e.g. entanglement), or indirectly through alteration of the local ecosystem and prey availability as well as physical and acoustical exclusion from important areas. Aquaculture farms are concentrated in the Chiloé Archipelago in southern Chile where the three study species co-occur. The proximity to intense coastal developments poses threats to the survival of these local and previously unstudied small cetacean populations. At the same time this area offeres the rare logistic opportunity to obtain missing biological background data on each species (using systematic repeat surveys) and to evaluate the potential effects of aquaculture activities on different species of small cetaceans.


To address some of the most pressing data deficiencies and conservation concerns, at least on a local scale, a study of the distribution and population ecology of small cetaceans in the Chiloé Archipelago was instigated in 2001. The study includes the collection of information on the Chilean dolphin (Cephalorhynchus eutropia), Peale's dolphin (Lagenorhynchus australis) and Burmeister's porpoise (Phocoena spinipinnis).


Activities include:


  • the assessment of distribution, abundance, ranging patterns and stock structure of the two dolphin species (and the porpoise where possible);
  • the determination of critical habitat for each species and provide recommendations on appropriate habitat protection measures;
  • the identification of threats to the local dolphin and porpoise populations posed by existing and developing anthropogenic activities with a view to advise local authorities on appropriate mitigation measures; and
  • the establishment of a long-term monitoring programme that allows population status to be established and trends in population sizes and distribution to be detected.


The project is complemented by the following educational goals:

  • To provide training in research methods to Chilean (and international) university students.
  • To build local (Chilean) capacity to administer all aspects of the project.
  • To develop (and provide) training courses to the fledging marine tourism industry to assist with responsible wildlife viewing activities (targeting cetaceans, sea lions, marine otters, aquatic birds).


Boat-based photo-identification and systematic habitat surveys are being conducted over consecutive austral summers and autumns in southern and central Chiloé. A team of two to four trained observers survey the coastal waters from a 4 m inflatable boat powered by a quiet outboard engine. Upon sighting dolphins or porpoises information on the species, group size, presence of calves, behaviour and a suite of environmental variables and observations of anthropogenic activities are recorded. Dolphins are being approached with care (to minimize potential disturbance) to obtain photographs of their dorsal fins for individual recognition using naturally occurring markings. Porpoises are generally shy, evasive and bear few individually identifying marks. Hence, photo-identification efforts mainly target dolphin species, and have yielded a wealth of novel information on individual movement and residency patterns, social affiliation and calving intervals. Photo-identification data are also being used in mark-recapture analyses to estimate population size and survival rates. Information on group size, behaviour, and environmental features are integrated in a modeling framework to investigate habitat partitioning among the three species and their spatial overlap with human activities, such as aquaculture farming. Predictive habitat modelling has proven a powerful tool to identify critical habitat which forms the basis for spatially explicit recommendations for habitat protection measures. Since 2004 the research team has been conducting educational seminars and one-week marine conservation workshops in the local schools and rural communities. Dolphins (and porpoises) serve as flagship species to help raise environmental awareness and sustainable use of the local marine resources. This project is built around community involvement and capacity-building of young Chilean scientists to ensure that ongoing research efforts translate into the first dedicated long-term monitoring of small cetaceans in southern Chile.


WAZA Conservation Project 07003 is jointly implemented by Biol. Marjorie Fuentes and Dr. Sonja Heinrich with the support of the NGO Yaqu Pacha (since 2001), the Wildlife Conservation Society.(through a 2003 Research Fellowship Grant) and the Zoo Nuernberg (since 2007), as well as by the Society for Marine Mammalogy (2001, 2005), Universidad Austral de Chile (2001-ongoing, logistics support), University of St Andrews (2002-2004: equipment), local government authorities (Municipality of Quellón: 2004-2007 loan of equipment for educational campaigns in rural schools).


> a vista general Proyecto