Who is the Marine Mammal Foundation? What do you do?

We are the Marine Mammal Foundation. We are a not-for-profit research, education, and conservation organisation. We conduct internationally recognised applied scientific research on marine mammals and environments across Victoria, and apply our research learnings to educate and inspire communities, and advise management authorities to assist with marine environment management decisions.

MMF began in 2013, after MMF’s Founding Director and Head of Research Dr Kate Charlton Robb discovered, named, and formally described a new species of dolphin in south-east Australian waters; the Burrunan dolphin.

MMF is a registered ACNC charity, and DGR entity. Our work is reliant on funding from grants, philanthropy, or generous donations from the community. We are predominantly volunteer run.

How is there a new dolphin species? Why had no one discovered it before? What makes it a new species? What makes them different? Is it new to the area? Where does it live?

There has been a long association between humans and dolphins in Victorian waters, dating back to the first European settlers, along with ancient Indigenous narrative. However, comprehensive analysis of Victoria’s dolphins had not been undertaken, and the species inhabiting these waters had not been determined.

Prior to Dr Kate’s discovery, two different species of bottlenose dolphin were known world-wide, the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus). The common bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) is distributed all over the world. T. truncatus are large animals, growing to 4m in length. Commonly found offshore, they have a dark grey colouration along their dorsal side and flanks, and a lighter underside. Common bottlenose dolphins have a curved dorsal fin, and a short, stubby rostrum.

The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) is widely distributed throughout the Indo-Pacific region, including Northern Australia. This species is smaller than the common bottlenose, being 2m – 2.5m in length. T. aduncus has a lighter grey pigmentation, with spotting on the ventral side, a long rostrum, and a triangular-shaped dorsal fin.

While dolphins were commonly seen throughout Victoria, especially in Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes, no one knew which species they were; T. truncatus or T. aduncus. The dolphins in Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes shared characteristics with both of these species; they had a curved dorsal fin and a stubby rostrum similar to T. truncatus, but were also smaller and lighter in colour similar to T. aduncus. These dolphins also possessed characteristics that were unique, including a distinct tri-colouration with a darker grey on the dorsal side, a lighter grey along the flanks extending over the eye, and a whiter colour on the ventral side. These dolphins were commonly referred to as ‘Southern Australian Bottlenose’, without any formal classification.

It was then Dr Kate asked the question: ‘What species of dolphin inhabits Port Phillip Bay?’. Using genetics as a tool for identifying cryptic species, Dr Kate begun by taking genetic samples of dolphins within Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes, along with accessing historical museum records. Expecting her results to identify the Port Phillip Bay dolphins as either T. truncatus or T. aduncus, Dr Kate was surprised that her findings did not match either of these species. Not only that, her findings indicated the dolphins within Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes were unique and unlike anything else in the world!

Through further genetic analysis of dolphins throughout south-east Australia, and analysis of other characteristics including external characteristics and internal morphology (such as cranial measurements), the Burrunan dolphin was discovered!

Since Dr Kate’s discovery, the entire mitogenome has been sequenced and dated against fossil record (Moura et al. 2013), the results confirm the Burrunan dolphin as a valid and separate species but it is also the most ancestral node for all bottlenose dolphins, with the split dated at 1.03 million years ago.

MMF continues to research the Burrunan dolphin, to assess its population and conservation status, social structure, distribution, migration and levels of diversity. This is alongside identifying threats to the populations and species as a whole.

Where are the Burrunan dolphins found?

Burrunan dolphins inhabit south-eastern Australian waters, including South Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania.

There are currently two known resident populations of Burrunan dolphins in Victoria; Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes. Burrunan dolphins can be found in these two locations all throughout the year.

Are the Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes Burrunan dolphins the same? Are they the same population?

Yes, the Burrunan dolphins in Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes are the same species.

However, the Port Phillip Bay Burrunan dolphins and the Gippsland Lakes Burrunan dolphins are two different populations. There is very little migration, mating, and gene flow between these two distinct populations. This was discovered through the genetic analysis undertaken by Dr Kate. Burrunan dolphins from Port Phillip Bay do not travel to the Gippsland Lakes, and vice-versa.

How many Burrunan dolphins are there in Port Phillip Bay?

Robust population modelling undertaken by MMF has determined that there are currently 120 Burrunan dolphins resident to Port Phillip Bay. Our research suggests that the population is stable, demonstrating constant annual calving and attrition.

What else do you know about Port Phillip Bay Burrunan dolphins?

Research undertaken by MMF has determined the social alliances of the Port Phillip Bay Burrunan dolphin population. This research suggests a strong association between many female individuals within the population, through nursery pods and maternal care. Male dolphins within this population tend to form smaller isolated alliances.

We have identified this population displays natal philopatry, whereby the dolphins born in Port Phillip Bay will remain there throughout their lives.

Population distribution research indicates that Port Phillip Bay Burrunan dolphins utilise the entire Bay as habitat, and are not isolated to one or two known areas as was previously thought.

How many Burrunan dolphins are there in the Gippsland Lakes?

Robust population modelling undertaken by MMF has determined that there are currently 65 Burrunan dolphins resident to the Gippsland Lakes.

However, the Gippsland Lakes Burrunan dolphin population increases in size during the winter months. This population increase in due to the arrival of groups of male Burrunan dolphins migrating to the Gippsland Lakes from Tasmania. Each year, we see the same male dolphins migrating to the Gippsland Lakes. These individuals are well known to the MMF team. Genetic analysis undertaken by Dr Kate has determined strong similarities in between Gippsland Lakes Burrunan dolphins and Tasmanian Burrunan dolphins, indicating a migration mating strategy between these two populations. This is the only mating strategy of this kind seen in any dolphin population in the world.

What else do you know about Gippsland Lakes Burrunan dolphins?

The Gippsland Lakes Burrunan dolphins utilise the entire Gippsland Lakes system as habitat. Burrunan dolphins can be found all throughout the Gippsland Lakes. Burrunan dolphins often travel outside of the entrance into Bass Straight. We have observed seasonal distribution changes, with sightings in the summer generally near Paynesville to Blond Bay (past Loch Sport), whereas in the winter, the dolphins move higher up and can be frequently seen off Sperm Whale Head, Bancroft Bay through to the Entrance.

Current MMF research is looking at what drives the distribution of Burrunan dolphins within the Gippsland Lakes. We are trying to determine whether the presence of recreational boats within the Gippsland Lakes, changes in food availability, and the different habitat types found within the Gippsland Lakes influence when, where, and how the Burrunan dolphins are utilising their habitat.

There aren’t many Burrunan dolphins in the world, what is going to happen to them? Will they go extinct?

While we have learnt a lot about our Burrunan dolphins in just a few short years, there is still a lot we don’t know. MMF’s research has been crucial in getting the Burrunan dolphin listed as endangered under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. As we continue our research, and learn more about the Burrunan dolphin, we will be able to apply for listing of the Burrunan dolphin under the Federal EPBC Act, and internationally under the IUCN RedList. Information and knowledge is key, so the continuation of MMF research is vital to the protection of the species.

What threats and dangers impact the Burrunan dolphin?

There are many threats facing the Burrunan dolphin, and unfortunately, humans are a prominent cause. The Port Phillip Bay and Gippsland Lakes Burrunan dolphin populations inhabit waters in close proximity to humans. Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia, with the Port of Melbourne the busiest port in the country. Recreational and commercial fishing provides for many Victorians, as both a source of food and livelihood. The way humans interact with and utilise the natural marine resources impacts the habitat of the Burrunan dolphin. Understanding these impacts is important for sustainable management of these resources.

Other threats to the Burrunan dolphin includes our litter and waste ending up in marine environments, resulting in entanglements, injury, and mortality from ingestion. Pollution and the increase of toxicants will also damage Victorian marine ecosystems. Burrunan dolphins are also susceptible to injury and death from boat strikes.

As there are very few Burrunan dolphins, low genetic variation and isolated populations can have severe long-term impacts on the health of the species. It is therefore vital that we are able to learn as much as we can about the species, identify the threats and dangers, and make changes to minimise these threats.

How can I help the Burrunan dolphins?

There are many ways for you to help the Burrunan dolphins and make a difference. Simple, but effective actions include:

  • Follow boating regulations in the presence of marine mammals. In particular, do not approach dolphins within 100m if in a vessel (powered and unpowered) or 300m on a jetski.
  • Have sustainable recreational fishing practices.
  • Reducing our reliance on litter and single use plastic items, by ‘rethinking’ our needs and consumer choices, has been demonstrated to be an effective way of reducing the amount of litter that ends up in marine environments.


  • Request a community, school, or workplace presentation and become involved in our education and outreach programs (outreach@marinemammal.org.au).
  • Adopt a Burrunan dolphin

https://marinemammal.org.au/product/adopt-dolphin/ – Become and MMF Member



    What kind of research do you do out on the boat?

    MMF conduct robust internationally recognised science, resulting in peer reviewed publications. As such we follow robust methodologies involving replicable surveys across Gippsland Lakes, Port Phillip Bay and coastal regions such as Wilson’s Prom.

    Whilst on boat-based surveys, we follow dedicated line transect surveys at a speed of 9-11knots. We have several MMF crew on board that have survey zones around the boat, covering an area of approximately 600m visual space. Once dolphins are spotted we collect environmental data, as well as information the pod compositions (age class, ie calves, adults etc), location and behaviour. We assess any changes to the behaviour and the variable that may be responsible ie boat approaches, prey. Behaviours include, travel, feeding, social, mating, resting/milling; and behavioural states such as leaps, chin-ups, surge, sharking, fish catch. We also collect photographs of the dolphins, underwater video footage (to assess behaviour and gender), acoustic recordings of their sound, and biopsy samples for genetic and toxicology analyses.

    How do we identify our dolphins?

    MMF researchers use the dolphin’s dorsal fin to identify each individual dolphin. Identifications are based on the naturally occurring nicks and notches found on the dolphin’s dorsal fin, usually on the trailing edge of the dorsal fin, and those markings act like a ‘FINgerprint’. They are born with ‘clean’ fins and gain nicks over time via social behaviour or human-induced causes, such as boat-strikes and nets.

    Employing this technique, variables, such as population size and trends, survivorship and calving rate can be measured. This provides a baseline for future efforts in conservation and management of these resident population and the species as a whole.

    Other Fun Facts:

    • Dolphins are in Order Cetacea; whales, dolphins and porpoises.
    • Mothers form a strong relationship with their babies (known as calves) which can last for more than three years.
    • Mothers and calves form nursery pods and are known to ‘babysit’ for each other, known as allomaternal care.
    • Burrunan dolphins use sound to communicate and find food, known as echolocation.
    • Individual Burrunan dolphins form strong friendships with other dolphins, known as social alliances.
    • Dolphins usually live for about 30 years in the wild.
    • Dolphins sleep by shutting down one side of their brain at a time. This allows them to remain alert. Dolphins can ‘rest’ or ‘mill’ at anytime during the day.

    What are MMF’s education programs?

    MMF provides innovative curriculum-based education programs real applied research with classroom learning. Our programs align with both the Australian science and geography curriculum, addressing cross curriculum priorities. Our education programs are tailored to fit within the curriculum from all year levels. Each session comprises of relevant theoretical component and a practical.

    Contact us at education@marinemammal.org.au

    What are MMF’s outreach programs?

    MMF provides a range of outreach programs, aimed at raising the awareness of the marine environment and conservation, through interactive workshops. MMF’s outreach programs vary in their delivery from structured education workshops for your local school or community group, to hands-on community driven activities.

    Contact us at outreach@marinemammal.org.au

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