People have been fascinated by dolphins for millennia, but we still know very little about their life in the wild. Now a team of scientists from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre and the University of Alaska Southeast have lifted the veil on cetacean private life thanks to new bespoke cameras that harmlessly attach to the animal's flank and provide an account of dolphin behavior that more invasive techniques have missed.

Dolphins are excellent environmental indicators, but they are also often put at hazard by human activity, so there are many reasons to learn more about them. The trouble is, they're a bit like dogs. You think you know what they're doing, but when you're not looking, you'd be surprised what they get up to.

According to Heidi Pearson, Assistant Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Alaska Southeast, we can see only 10 percent of dolphin behavior from the surface and sending down dive teams and submersibles to study and film them may bring back valuable data, but it also interferes with their behavior, which becomes as disrupted as that of a human family being told by a television crew to "act natural."

The team's solution was to use special camera modules equipped with suction cups that attach to the dorsal flanks of dolphins using a low pole and Velcro pads. Each camera is equipped with a six-hour battery, memory boards, VHF and satellite transmitters, and time/depth recorders.

Tests involving eight wild dusky dolphins were carried out off the coast of New Zealand from December 2015 to January 2016. So far, the cameras have provided scientists with 535 minutes of video showing rarely-witnessed behaviors, such as mother-calf interaction, playing with kelp, and social flipper-rubbing, as well as hunting and other habits

The researchers see such action-cam technology as not only providing unique views of dolphin life, but as a way of improving conservation and wildlife rehabilitation. By studying dolphins so intimately, it will be possible to gain a better understanding of the marine environment as well as the stocks of fish and squid eaten by dolphins that support much of the fishing industry. In addition, it will be a way to help minimize the impact of human activities, like shipping, on dolphin wellbeing as well as monitoring aquatic endangered species with high resolution.

"For the first time, these cameras have given us the opportunity to see what dolphins do on their own terms," says Dr Gabriel Machovsky-Capuska from the University of Sydney's School of Veterinary Science and Charles Perkins Centre. "There were no wildlife crews, no invasive underwater housings – and the dolphins remained largely unaffected by our cameras. This research opens up a whole new approach for capturing wild animal behavior, which will ultimately help us to not only advance conservation efforts but also come closer to understanding wild predators' and human nutrition too."

Now that the technology has proven itself on dolphins, the team hopes to adapt it to other cetacea and to sharks.

The results were published in Marine Biology.

The video below provides a brief glimpse into dolphin life.

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