Bottlenose dolphins eat wide variety of prey fish, and they use wide variety of methods to catch what they eat.
With a few exceptions, the fish is captured, turned head first in the dolphin’s mouth, and swallowed whole.
In Sarasota, dolphins eat pinfish, mullet, pigfish, spot, toadfish, ladyfish, sea trout, and other fishes found in the shallow sea grass flats.
As described by our colleague and friend, the late Dr. Nélio Barros, dolphins often find prey fish simply by listening.
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The main prey species of dolphin make noises by grinding their teeth (pinfish and pigfish), by contracting their swim bladder (spot), or by making frequent leaps into the air (mullet).
With catfish, which have large spines, dolphins will de-capitate the catfish and then swallow the rest of the body.
Often dolphins capture their prey underwater with a high-speed chase. Sometimes dolphins feed cooperatively, teaming up to herd and capture prey fish. In the Bahamas, dolphins are known to poke their head in the sand, probably trying to catch a buried fish.
When a chase by an individual dolphin ends with a quick tight circle, it’s called pin-wheeling, as the dolphin grabs the fish at the surface.
Some dolphins do what is called “fish whacking.” This is a behavior in which the dolphin hits a fleeing fish with its flukes, launching it clear of the water for 20 ft or more. Then the dolphin leisurely swims over to swallow its stunned prey.
Sometimes a dolphin will drive its flukes through the surface of the water , creating a noisy splash. This a behavior called “kerplunking.” This is thought to disorient or disturb prey fish in shallow grass patches, making them easier prey.
Groups of bottlenose dolphins in Georgia and the Carolinas are known to swim rapidly toward a mud bank in tidal creeks, pushing fish up onto the mud with the wave they create. The dolphins then slide up onto the mud flat themselves, snapping up as many fish as they can before sliding back down into the water.
Relevant SDRP citations
Barros, N.B. and R.S. Wells. 1998. Prey and feeding patterns of resident bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Sarasota Bay, Florida. J. Mammalogy 79(3):1045-1059.
Berens McCabe, E., D.P. Gannon, N.B. Barros and R.S. Wells. 2010. Prey selection in a resident common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) community in Sarasota Bay, Florida. Marine Biology 157(5):931-942. DOI 10.1007/s00227-009-1371-2
Gannon, D.P., N.B. Barros, D.P. Nowacek, A.J. Read, D.M. Waples, and R.S. Wells. 2005. Prey detection by bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): an experimental test of the passive-listening hypothesis. Animal Behavior 69:709-720.
All photos © Sarasota Dolphin Research Program under NMFS permit #522-1785