The research undertaken in Mammalogy focuses primarily on the excellent marine mammal collections and databases held at the Museum. Carcasses collected by Museum staff, National Parks, Wildlife SA and volunteers undergo post-mortems and detailed sample collection that contribute to long-term studies of many aspects of marine mammal biology. South Australia’s database of whale and dolphin sightings is also managed by researchers in Mammalogy.
Some examples of current research on marine mammals are:
- Taxonomy and distribution of southern Australian dolphins in the genus Tursiops and Delphinus,
- Biology of the Pygmy Right Whale, Caperea marginata,
- Diet and life history including age estimation using teeth,
- Toxic contaminant concentrations and how these relate to pathology,
- Diseases and parasites
- Cause of death, including human interactions that lead to the death of animals;
- Population genetics,
- Morphology and anatomy
- Conservation status and abundance of dolphins in South Australian waters.
The Dolphin Trauma Group is a multidisciplinary team of specialists who investigate dolphin mortalities, disease and biology in South Australia. It is under the direction of the Senior Researcher in Mammalogy. The specific aims of the group are to 1) determine as quickly as possible the cause and manner of dolphin deaths, 2) ensure that adequate documentation of injuries and evidence collection is undertaken to facilitate prosecutions if possible perpetrators are found, 3) assist in the collection of information on dolphin morbidity and mortality and 4) carry out scientific research that assists in conserving local dolphin populations.
A Marine Mammal Ageing Facility was established in 2007 to facilitate the study of age estimation of whales, dolphins and seals. At present, it is focussing on methods involving teeth of marine mammals, particularly dolphins and seals, and is available for use by non-Museum personnel. The facility has an advisory committee of researchers from other parts of Australia who are experienced in age estimation techniques.
Long-term research on the abundance and distribution of fur seals and sea lions in southern Australia is also undertaken. Interactions between human activities and these marine mammals are monitored for their potential threat to species and populations.
There is also an active programme of research on terrestrial mammal species of Australia and on subfossil mammals. Examples are:
- Taxonomy, distribution and identification of small marsupials, native rodents and bats
- Taxonomy of extinct rodents found in subfossil material, e.g. Pseudomys auritus, Notomys robustus
- Changes in the subfossil fauna as it relates to time of deposition
- Seasonal changes in the diet of barn owls from the arid zone as determined by studying pellets
- Bat conservation
It is important to know the age of wild animals if we are to understand some aspects of a species' life history and ecology. Body structures that are used to determine age can also yield information on an animal's general health and reproductive history, and the influence of environmental factors on growth, health and reproduction of a population. The techniques used for estimating the age of marine mammals using bone and teeth were first developed in the 1950s and are continuing to be refined and verified for a increasing number of species.