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Where to catch a fish? The influence of foraging tactics on the ecology of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Florida Bay, Florida


Current address: Leigh G. Torres, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Ltd. (NIWA), 301 Evans Bay Parade, Greta Point, Kilbirnie, Wellington, New Zealand.


Observations of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Florida Bay, Florida, between 2002 and 2005 revealed the use of three distinct foraging tactics. The goal of this study was to identify ecological correlates with tactic use and describe the impact of foraging specializations on the overall habitat use and distribution patterns of this dolphin population. Foraging tactics showed strong association with contrasting environmental characteristics, primarily depth. Locations of two of these tactic groups were spatially repulsed. Analyses of sighting histories of individual dolphins observed at foraging events determined that dolphins which employed one tactic never employed the other, and vice versa. Although bottlenose dolphins have plastic foraging behaviors, dolphins in Florida Bay appear to specialize in one tactic and subsequently limit their overall distribution patterns to coincide with habitats that facilitate success using that foraging tactic. This study demonstrates how foraging behavior can be an ecological determinant of overall dolphin habitat use patterns and works to create spatial structure within a population due to consistent mapping of tactics onto environmental variation. These foraging specializations potentially impact the social and demographic patterns of this dolphin population. The possible evolutionary mechanisms behind this intraspecific variation, including resource limitation and social learning, are considered.