Patches the Bottlenose Dolphin – The Dana Point Mascot

In August the familiar markings sported by Patches, the Dana Point mascot, was spotted off the Orange County coast. Patches is a bottlenose dolphin that has distinctive black and white speckled markings due to a genetic condition called leucism.  Seeing him is a rare treat.  Patches was first identified in 2006 and since then has been enjoyed by many due to his easily identifiable “patches” as he travels up and down the Southern California coastline.

Patches is thought to be a young adult male.  Generally bottlenose dolphins live between 45 and 65 years. While it is not unusual for a year or so to go by without a Patches sighting, his reemergence signals he is still healthy and enjoying our warm waters. He has been identified in the food rich waters between Santa Cruz Island and San Diego.  Oftentimes he travels in a group of 50 to 100 dolphins called a pod.

Dolphins travel in pods because they are social mammals.   Pods can become quite large and have been noted by scientists to reach up to 1000 members.  Dolphins thrive within the group, interacting with each other as well as hunting for food as a team and offering protection.  A dolphin like Patches, with distinct markings ranging from black and grey to pink and white, is not camouflaged as well as a dolphin with traditional markings.  For Patches, the safety of a group is of the utmost importance, acting to protect him from predators such as sharks.  Should he encounter trouble, Patches would communicate with his dolphin pod through a whistle-like sound that is unique to him and acts as a call for help.

Ocean pollution impacts

Patches’ distinct markings are due to a condition called leucism.  It is a congenital anomaly, taking place in the early stages of embryonic development, causing a reduction in melanin resulting in a partial loss of pigmentation.  It can result in color changes to the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles.  Leucism does not have any effect on eye color.  This condition can be found in all animals.  Albinism is a term many are more familiar with and this is a similar genetic anomaly resulting in a total loss of pigment.

Genetic anomalies can occur naturally but there may be more at play.  One reason for a genetic alteration in DNA when replicating may very well be pollution.  Mercury, PCB’s and radiation all can penetrate the DNA causing permanent alterations.  More studies are needed, as this is a complex issue, but it has been observed that there is a greater incidence of leucism in animals in the areas surrounding Chernobyl and Fukushima.  Of course these sites are infamous for their nuclear disasters in 1986 and 2011, respectively.

Luca Giovagnoli, DVM, noted in his Dolphin blog, the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster must be researched.  In white dolphin cases, in the last 12 months three dolphins have been captured in Taiji, Japan exhibiting leucism or albinism and this number is far greater than we would ever expect to occur in nature.  For reference, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noted that although twenty species of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been observed to have white individuals resulting from a genetic anomaly there have been only fourteen recorded sightings of bottlenose dolphins that have been recorded with leucism or albinism from 1962 up to the 2011 Fukushima disaster.   Collecting information on these rare cases and ongoing research is the key to understanding the cause of leucism.

Report unusual animal sightings

Patches the botthenose dolphin

Photo credit Newport Coastal Adventure

The next time you are frolicking in the waves, surfing, paddle boarding or just walking on the beach, keep an eye out for the black and white shimmer of Patches.  If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him, please pass on your good fortune and report it  so  the information can be sent to NOAA.  With your help,  we can work together to promote understanding and ensure the safety of not only Patches but all ocean wildlife.

Patches Video


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