What dolphins eat

Feb 27, 2012 2 comments By


Bottlenose dolphins often listen for their next meal.

While they eat many different fish species, among the favorites in Sarasota Bay are soniferous or noise-making fish, which include pigfish and toadfish.

That’s right, dolphins,  which are famous for their sonar, use passive listening to help when hunting prey.

Building on ground-breaking work by the late Dr. Nélio Barros, and Dr. Damon Gannon, our foraging ecology research indicates that while soniferous fish make up only 6% of the fish species in Sarasota Bay, these species make up 52% of the dolphins’ diet.

And dolphins are selective feeders, not opportunistic predators.

That means that relatively less abundant species like pig fish and toad fish tend to be selected over the more abundant mullet.

Further, the energy content of prey species varies seasonally, which may cause dolphins to vary their diet at different times of the year.

Some important dolphin prey species, such as pinfish have shown a decline in average body size since our research began in 2004.

Thus, less available energy is obtainable from each prey capture event. This might have negative implications for the growth of weaning dolphin calves, which are often observed to feed on pin fish.

For more information on foraging ecology and our other research, download our yearly Nicks_n Notches newsletter. Click here to learn more about  soniferous fish.


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About the author

Blair Irvine, PhD, is retired and manages the SDRP website, serves as President of the non-profit Dolphin Biology Research Institute, and he volunteers as otherwise needed. He started the SDRP in 1970 with then-high school student Randy Wells. Blair led the research into the late-1970’s when Randy took over. After that, Blair's non-dolphin career was in the area of human behavioral health. With NIH support, much of his research was involved Internet interventions and training programs. His graduate degrees are in Zoology, Exercise Physiology, and Health Education.

2 Responses to “What dolphins eat”

  1. Blair Irvine says:

    That’s an interesting theory, but dolphins don’t eat plankton.

  2. Kim says:

    I have heard that dolphins are eating less fish due to the decline in number of fish in certain areas and that dolphins substitute by eating planckton. Do you agree with this statemnet?

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