According to recent surveys, there are only 55 adult and juvenile Maui's dolphins left in the wild. Though they are protected, conservationists fear that the population of the critically endangered species is not large enough to support sustainable breeding. The problem is that with so few individuals, genetic diversity can suffer, leading to a weakened species more susceptible to birth defects and disease.
Another concern, explained Dr. Rochelle Constantine from the University of Auckland, is that "with such a dangerously low number of breeding females has been that the fertility of the population may be compromised, but our work shows that the number of pregnant females is within the expected range, which is encouraging."
This good news was bolstered by another discovery: DNA analysis has revealed that two migrant Hector's dolphins—a typically separate sub-species—have integrated and bred with Maui's dolphins. This event—the first ever documented—suggests that the species has taken advantage of an opportunity to increase the diversity of its gene pool.
And analyzing tissues samples has provided insight into more than breeding habits; the next step for researchers is to use the samples to establish what times of fish the dolphins regularly feed on. With this feeding data, conservationists will be better able to protect prey populations for this troubled species.