Estimating the age of Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) based on skin appearance

Hartman, K.L., Wittich, A., Cai, J.J., van der Meulen, F. H., & Azevedo, J.M.N. (2016) Estimating the age of Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) based on skin appearance.

Journal of Mammalogy, 97(2), 490-502. DOI:10.1093/jmammal/gyv193 (IF2016 1,630; Q2 Zoology)
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  • Dec, 2016


One of Risso’s dolphin’s distinctive characteristics is the tendency to “lighten” with age due to the accumulation of unpigmented scars. These accumulated scars may provide an indication of age. Photographic skin recaptures gathered from 61 free-ranging animals over a period of 15 years were analyzed to develop a skin classification model in 6 skin stages. Classification of photographic skin captures following this model was tested by 15 experts and 13 nonexpert rankers, with a general probability of agreement of 79%. The duration of each skin stage was estimated using a statistical model based on the recorded dates in which individual animals were known to have entered and/or exited a given stage. A Bayesian approach was used to combine available photographic skin recapture data using expert knowledge as prior to predict the duration for each skin stage and thus the mean age at each stage. Results suggest that animals may live more than 45 years, which is in agreement with published information based on dental layers. The proposed skin stages can be correlated with reproduction, with the transition to stage 3 linked to the onset of maturity. Adult females are less scarified than males and were not observed in the whiter skin classes. The proposed skin stage model is noninvasive and easy to apply and could be a valuable tool in further studies of population structure and dynamics of Risso’s dolphins.