A common bottlenose dolphin (<i>Tursiops truncatus</i>) prey handling technique for marine catfish (Ariidae) in the northern Gulf of Mexico
by Errol I. Ronje, Kevin P. Barry, Carrie Sinclair, Mark A. Grace, Nélio Barros, Jason Allen, Brian Balmer, Anna Panike, Christina Toms, Keith D. Mullin, Randall S. WellsFew accounts describe predator-prey interactions between common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus Montagu 1821) and marine catfish (Ariopsis felis Linnaeus 1766, Bagre marinus Mitchill 1815). Over the course of 50,167 sightings of bottlenose dolphin groups in Mississippi Sound and along the Florida coast of the Gulf of Mexico, severed catfish heads were found floating and exhibiting movements at the surface in close proximity to 13 dolphin groups that demonstrated feeding behavior. These observations prompted a multi-disciplinary approach to study the predator-prey relationship between bottlenose dolphins and marine catfish. A review was conducted of bottlenose dolphin visual survey data and dorsal fin photographs from sightings where severed catfish heads were observed. Recovered severed catfish heads were preserved and studied, whole marine catfish were collected and examined, and stranding network pathology reports were reviewed for references to injuries related to fish spines. Photographic identification analysis confirms eight dolphins associated with severed catfish heads were present in three such sightings across an approximately 350 km expanse of coast between the Mississippi Sound and Saint Joseph Bay, FL. An examination of the severed catfish heads indicated interaction with dolphins, and fresh-caught whole hardhead catfish (A. felis) were examined to estimate the presumed total length of the catfish before decapitation. Thirty-eight instances of significant trauma or death in dolphins attributed to ingesting whole marine catfish were documented in stranding records collected from the southeastern United States of America. Bottlenose dolphins typically adhere to a ram-feeding strategy for prey capture followed by whole prey ingestion; however, marine catfish skull morphology may pose a consumption hazard due to rigid spines that can puncture and migrate through soft tissue, prompting a prey handling technique for certain dolphins, facilitating consumption of the posterior portion of the fish without the head.
Publisher URL: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article
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