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Research Leads to Lifelong Lessons

Student Interns Gain Skills and Understanding Through Dolphin Study

July 16, 2013

dolphins swimming in the ocean

A dolphin swimming in the ocean near the Newport Beach shore shows its dorsal fin.

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As the dolphin’s dorsal fin cuts through the surface of the ocean water, Miranda Domico, a 22-year-old biology major, snaps a succession of photos. Meanwhile, environmental studies graduate student Cynthia L. Lujan records meticulous notes on what she sees.

Both students are interning this summer for psychologist Kayla Causey as part of her Coastal Dolphins of Orange County Project. They are building a digitized, up-to-date online photo-identification catalog to track individual dolphins. The data will be compared with data of other researchers who are studying dolphins along the California coastline. Causey, a CSUF lecturer in psychology, said the catalog allows researchers to estimate the population of dolphins and monitor whether they are declining or increasing and why.

Causey and her interns have been studying the marine mammals for more than a year. The scientific evidence they are gathering is important to a psychologist, Casuey explained, because the field of psychology includes the study of animal behavior, learning and cognition. Even without shared genes, dolphins and humans share a higher intelligence and dolphins have the same type of social cognition as humans — they demonstrate empathy, recognize individuals and are self-aware, she said.

“This can lead to insight as to how humans are intelligent in similar ways to these species,” Causey said.

Involving students in the research provides a hands-on learning experience, she said. In her 15-week field course, Causey trains her research assistants to monitor, photograph and collect data on what dolphins they see and when. They make their observations by cruising Orange County’s harbors and beaches in Causey's inflatable boat or from the jetties off Corona del Mar and Newport Beach.

“Learning about dolphins gives me the tools I need to raise awareness about our ecology,” said Domico, who plans to pursue graduate studies in ecological research. “It’s important to teach people about these animals so they can see how similar we are.”

Human activity “affects dolphin behavior and it’s important to learn how to interact harmoniously,” Lujan added. “This research is a good starting point.”

In fact, the internship has helped Lujan zero in on a thesis topic.

“Because of this experience, I’m going to focus on reviewing a marine education pilot program that incorporates science, technology, engineering and mathematics lessons for fifth-graders,” Lujan said. “This is where my passion is now, thanks to this research.”
 
All the hours of waiting and watching for dolphins, taking their photos, recording their sounds, tracking their movements and learning about their intelligence and behaviors have “not only given me practical experience, but a greater understanding about the world we live in,” she said.

Domico agreed, saying she often shares what she’s learning.

For example, “did you know that dolphins have big brains like us?” she asked enthusiastically. “They display behavior similar to us. Last week, I saw two magnificent dolphins jumping in the waves, basically playing just like children like to play.”

“I know I want to go to grad school now and study animal behavior and the environment,” she added. “This experience is preparing me to be able to get into grad school and eventually go to Africa and pursue my dream of studying animals there.”

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

Tags:  Academics & ResearchCommunity