A WILDLIFE trust has received a grant from the Welsh Government to study the diets of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay.

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales has received £249,306 from the Welsh Government’s Nature Networks Fund for its Dolphin Diet Detectives: Unveiling Dolphin Diets and Engaging Communities for UK Conservation.

The two-year research project into dolphin conservation in Cardigan Bay will see the wildlife trust work with Aberystwyth and Cardiff University.

The marine conservation team based at the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre in New Quay, will collect dolphin faecal samples during research surveys, from which DNA will be extracted and genetic ‘metabarcoding’ performed by researchers from Aberystwyth University. This will reveal what species the dolphins are consuming at various times and locations.

Dr Sarah Perry, Marine Conservation and Research Manager at WTSWW said: "We are thrilled to embark on this groundbreaking project, using cutting-edge environmental DNA (eDNA) and genetic techniques to unravel the mysteries of bottlenose dolphin ecology in Cardigan Bay.

“This project covers an area of research that we have aspired to embark on over the past decade or so and we are excited that it has come to fruition at a time when it is even more important that we build on our knowledge of the species in the waters around us.

“Our focus on understanding dolphin diet, population dynamics and interactions with prey species through innovative research methods will not only inform vital conservation strategies but also actively involve the community. This project is a collaborative endeavour, uniting science and community for a sustainable future.”

DNA from the faecal samples will also be used to generate individual profiles for each dolphin. The team will look at these profiles to find out the sex of the dolphins, investigate family relationships, population size, breeding potential and movement patterns. The project team will match these unique profiles with individual bottlenose dolphin photo ID records.

Water samples will be collected at various times and locations throughout Cardigan Bay and we will use environmental DNA (eDNA) methods to understand prey species availability.

To validate our eDNA findings our project partners at Cardiff University will use Baited Underwater Video Systems (BRUVS) to record the presence of marine species in the area at the time.

Dr David Wilcockson from the Department of the Life Sciences at Aberystwyth University said: “Our team is delighted to be a partner on this novel and exciting research project.

“Our molecular genetic and marine biology expertise dovetail with the excellent monitoring and conservation work of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and should reveal some long-kept secrets of dolphin biology.

“What is really exciting for us, aside from finding out what dolphins are eating and their behaviours, is the fact that we are involving the public in this work.

“They are the 'dolphin detectives' and we hope this will provide a pathway by which they can feel more connected to their local environment and encourage conservation activities beyond the project.”