England’s first resident pod of bottlenose dolphins has been discovered by researchers.
Experts identified 98 individual bottlenose dolphins after analysing thousands of sightings and photographs between 2007 and 2016.
Researchers were able to define a distinct social group of 28 resident dolphins present throughout the year in shallow coastal waters around the South West.
Individual dolphins can be recognised using their dorsal fin, which has a distinctive shape and markings.
The dolphins were present mainly in Cornwall, particularly St Ives and Mount’s Bay, but also in Devon and Dorset.
Ruth Williams, marine conservation manager at Cornwall Wildlife Trust, said: “This research is proof that we have a resident population and is incredibly exciting.
“Further work is needed but this is a huge step forward and I am proud of what our partnership between Cornwall Wildlife Trust, scientists and boat operators has achieved.
“The future of these iconic animals is in our hands and we need to make sure the few we currently have in the South West are given the protection not just to survive, but to thrive.”
Rebecca Dudley, from the University of Plymouth, analysed 3,843 records in order to identify resident dolphins.
Conservationists said the discovery could have significant implications for the conservation of these dolphins, which currently receive no specific protection in their home range.
Bottlenose dolphins in the South West face a number of threats, experts said, including pollution from plastics and chemicals, injury by fishing nets, and disturbance from recreational activities.
Researchers believe that by highlighting the existence of a resident population, they have achieved the first step in seeking specific protection for these animals.
The next step would be to collect more evidence on their movements and behaviour and strengthen the case for the importance of this area.
Researchers from the University of Plymouth said in a statement: “As dolphins are so wide-ranging, strong evidence is needed to show that an area is important before protection can even be considered.
“The UK’s two other resident bottlenose dolphin populations (in the Moray Firth, Scotland, and in Cardigan Bay, Wales) have both received protection.”