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Keywords:

  • food preference;
  • choice behavior;
  • prey and habitat selection;
  • feeding regimes

Abstract

The semiwild beach-feeding bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) of Monkey Mia, Western Australia, provide an unparalleled opportunity to examine prey preference of this species. In a series of binary-choice feeding experiments, we took advantage of the animals' willingness to be fed by hand, to explore their preferences for fish species, size, and state (freshly caught or previously frozen). At the end of each beach visit, each dolphin was provided with a pair of fish but allowed to eat only the first one chosen. The dolphins appeared indifferent among the three species of fish offered to them (yellowtail trumpeter, Amniataba caudovittatus; striped trumpeter, Pelates sexlineatus; and western butterfish, Pentapodus vitta), which were of similar body form and matched for mass. Overall, the dolphins showed a slight preference for the larger of two yellowtail trumpeter offered, suggesting the capability for rational choice when there was a basis for it (most likely energy in this case), although there was considerable individual variation. The dolphins did not distinguish between freshly caught and previously frozen yellowtail. The methodology we describe can be used to generate data of potential value for understanding food and habitat selection of wild dolphins, and for modifying management practices for semiwild dolphins at Monkey Mia and elsewhere.