• ecological model;
  • primary production;
  • trophic transfer;
  • carbon budget;
  • bottlenose dolphins;
  • Tursiops truncatus;
  • salt marsh


We developed a model to estimate the proportion of annual primary production required to support bottlenose dolphins within the 32-km2 North Inlet salt marsh creek system in South Carolina, U. S. A. The estimated annual prey consumption by dolphins was compared to the total annual production of prey available to dolphins, as determined from estimates of annual primary production, trophic transfer efficiencies, and the mean trophic level of prey. A best estimate range of 3.2%-6.8% of the total annual primary production of the North Inlet system was required to support an average population of only six dolphins (maximum range of 0.4%–7.0%). Dolphins were estimated to consume 11.1–14.2 metric tons of fish (wet weight) each year in North Inlet. The proportion of North Inlet primary production required to support dolphins increased dramatically during the winter months, when primary production declined but dolphin numbers remained similar. This period was marked by a decline in the abundance of available prey species and by a shift in the creek utilization patterns of dolphins. Despite the numerical scarcity of dolphins in the system, they appear to have a significant ecological impact and may be important predators of overwintering prey species.