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Individual specialization in the foraging habits of female bottlenose dolphins living in a trophically diverse and habitat rich estuary

June 1, 2015

We examine individual specialization in foraging habits (foraging habitat and trophic level) of female bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) resident in Sarasota Bay, Florida, USA, by analyzing time series of stable isotope (δ15N and δ13C) values in sequential growth layer groups within teeth. The isotope data provide a chronology of foraging habits over the lifetime of the individual and allowed us to show that female bottlenose dolphins exhibit a high degree of individual specialization in both foraging habitat and trophic level. The foraging habits used by adult females are similar to those they used as calves and may be passed down from mother to calf through social learning. We also characterized the foraging habits and home range of each individual by constructing standard ellipses from isotope values and dolphin sightings data (latitude and longitude), respectively. These data show that Sarasota Bay bottlenose dolphins forage within a subset of the habitats in which they are observed. Moreover, females with similar observational standard ellipses often possessed different foraging specializations. Female bottlenose dolphins may demonstrate individual specialization in foraging habits because it reduces some of the cost of living in groups, such as competition for prey.