- The critically endangered Maui's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) and the endangered Hector's dolphin (C. h. hectori) are endemic to the coastal waters of New Zealand, where their primary threat is fisheries-related mortality. The Maui's dolphin is among the most critically endangered cetaceans in the world, with its remnant population primarily concentrated in approximately 140 km along the central west coast of New Zealand's North Island. Its closely related sister subspecies, the Hector's dolphin, is more abundant and offers a useful comparison for studying the Maui's dolphin. My work used genetic tools to examine demographic and genetic parameters relevant for conservation considerations regarding Maui's and Hector's dolphins, as well as to build upon past genetic baselines for the purpose of long-term genetic monitoring of these subspecies. Three genetic datasets formed the basis for most analyses: (1) Maui's 01-07, including 54 Maui's dolphin individuals sampled between 2001 and 2007 (n = 70 biopsies, 12 beachcast); (2) Maui's 10-11, including 40 Maui's dolphin individuals sampled in 2010 and 2011 (n = 69 biopsies, 1 beachcast); and (3) Hector's CB11-12, including 148 Hector's dolphin individuals sampled in Cloudy Bay in 2011 and 2012 (n = 263 biopsies). Microsatellite genotypes were used to identify individuals for a genotype recapture abundance estimate of individuals age 1⁺ (N₁₊) and for the estimation of effective population size (N[subscript e]). Both populations exhibited a high N[subscript e] relative to N₁₊, consistent with expectations given their life history characteristics and the limited data available for other dolphin species. The abundance of Maui's dolphins was confirmed to be very low, Maui's 10-11 N₁₊ = 55 (95% CL = 48 - 69), and as expected, it had much lower linkage disequilibrium N[subscript e] (61, 95% CL = 29 - 338) than Hector's CB11-12 (N[subscript e] = 207, 95% CL = 127 - 447; N₁₊ = 272, 95% CL = 236 - 323). The slightly higher Ne/N₁₊ ratio of the Maui's dolphin compared to the Hector's dolphin is consistent with a recent decline in the Maui's dolphin. Although the point estimates of both N[subscript e] and N₁₊ decreased between the two Maui's dolphin datasets (Maui's 01-07: N[subscript e] = 74, 95% CL = 37 - 318; N₁₊ = 69, 95% CL = 38 - 125), the confidence intervals widely overlapped. Maui's 10-11 had significantly fewer alleles (average 4 alleles/locus) and lower heterozygosity (H₀ = 0.316, H[subscript e] = 0.319) than Hector's CB11-12 (average 7 alleles/locus, H₀ = 0.500, H[subscript e] = 0.495; all P <0.001). Interestingly, one microsatellite locus (PPHO104) had anomalously high diversity (31 to 63 alleles) in both Hector's and Maui's dolphins and appears to be influenced by diversifying selection. The observed and expected heterozygosity, internal relatedness, and F[subscript IS] of Maui's dolphins all showed patterns consistent with a decline of the subspecies, although none differed significantly over the short time interval between the two datasets collected in 2001-07 and 2010-11. The lack of significant decline in any of the parameters analyzed for Maui's dolphins is not surprising given the low power to detect a low to moderate decline over the short interval (<1 generation) between the two sampling periods.
Compared to minimum viable effective population sizes proposed to guide management decisions, the Maui's dolphin has declined below the recommended threshold of N[subscript e] = 50, recently increased to N[subscript e] ≥100, thought to be necessary to avoid inbreeding depression in the short term (5 generations, ~65.2 years for Maui's and Hector's dolphins). Additionally, both the Maui's dolphin and Cloudy Bay Hector's dolphin populations are below the recommended threshold of N[subscript e] = 500, recently increased to N[subscript e] ≥1000, thought to be necessary to preserve long-term evolutionary potential. This is less of a concern for the Cloudy Bay Hector's population, which is thought to maintain gene flow with neighboring populations. However, for the small, isolated Maui's dolphin population, inbreeding depression is likely to be an increasing concern. Furthermore, each Maui's dolphin individual holds a disproportionate amount of the total genetic variation of the subspecies and would represent a disproportionately large demographic and genetic loss if it died before realizing its reproductive potential in the population. There is, however, potential for genetic restoration by interbreeding with Hector's dolphins, as genetic monitoring of Maui's dolphins revealed the first contemporary dispersal of four (two living females, one dead female, one dead male) Hector's dolphins into the Maui's dolphin distribution. Two Hector's dolphins (one dead female neonate, one living male) were also sampled along the North Island's southwest coast, outside the presumed range of either subspecies. Together, these records provide evidence of long-distance dispersal by Hector's dolphins (≥400 km) and the possibility of an unsampled Hector's dolphin population along the southwest coast of the North Island or northern South Island. These results highlight the value of genetic monitoring for subspecies lacking distinctive physical appearances, as such discoveries are not detected by other means but have important conservation implications.
Although the Maui's dolphin is critically endangered, it is not necessarily doomed to extinction. The subspecies appears to be maintaining an equal sex ratio and connectivity within its remnant range, and the highly diverse locus PPHO104 could potentially offer clues to an inbreeding avoidance mechanism. If Maui's dolphins interbreed with the recently identified Hector's dolphin immigrants, it could provide genetic restoration, enhancing chances of long-term survival of the Maui's dolphin. Continued genetic monitoring and examination of recovered carcasses for phenotypic signs of inbreeding are important for gauging genetic threats to the survival of Maui's dolphins, as well as determining if any Hector's dolphin populations appear to be declining toward the critically endangered state of the Maui's dolphin.
The results of this work contributed to the decision by the New Zealand Department of Conservation and Ministry for Primary Industries to conduct an updated risk assessment for Maui's dolphins and accelerate the review of the Maui's Dolphin Threat Management Plan. Consequently, commercial and recreational set net restrictions were extended slightly to reduce entanglement risk to Maui's dolphins utilizing the southern part of their distribution, as well as any Hector's dolphins that disperse north into that area. The results related to the population of Hector's dolphins in Cloudy Bay provide information that will contribute to the upcoming review of the Hector's dolphin component of the Threat Management Plan.