Common bottlenose dolphin

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Tursiops truncatus, Common bottlenose dolphin Source: Sea Mammal Research Unit

The Common bottlenose dolphin (scientific name: Tursiops truncatus) is one of 36 species of Oceanic Dolphins in the family  Delphinidae.  A marine mammal, this cetacean is one of the most well-known species of dolphin.

Until recently, the Common bottlenose dolphin was viewed as the only species within genus Tursiops. However, the Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphin is now recognized as a distinct separate species. Several subpopulations of Common bottlenose dolphins are being examined closely to determine whether they too should be recognized as separate species. For example, in coastal areas of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Common bottlenose dolphin is smaller than a larger, more robust form that lives mainly offshore. Three different populations have been identified in the North Pacific: a temperate-water group, a tropical-water group, and a coastal group. There is considerable variation in size and colour between populations of Tursiops truncatus worldwide.

caption Common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) Source: NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service
caption Size comparison of an average human against the Bottlenose dolphin. Source: Chris Huh

Conservation Status:

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum:--- Chordata
Class:------ Mammalia
Order:-------- Cetacea
Family:-------- Delphinidae
Genus:--------- Tursiops
Species:--------Tursiops aduncus (Ehrenberg, 1833)

Common Names:
Atlantic bottlenose dolphin
Bottle-nose dolphin
Bottlenose dolphin
Common bottlenose dolphin
Gill's Bottlenose Dolphin
Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphin
Bottle-nosed dolphin
Bottlenosed dolphin
Grand souffleur

This stocky species has a torpedo-shaped body, a short beak and pointed flippers . They are usually dark grey on the back with paler grey flanks and a white or pinkish belly . The sickle-shaped dorsal fin is tall, and positioned centrally on the back; variations in the shape of the dorsal fin along with scars and other markings on the skin can help researchers to identify individuals .

This active species engages in much energetic behaviour, including breaching (clearing the water), lobtailing (slapping the tail flukes down onto the surface of the water) and bow-riding (riding the swell created in front of boats and even large whales) . It has also been observed 'playing games' with seaweed and other objects. 

Dolphins are highly intelligent animals; they have a sophisticated echolocation system and communicate via a range of sounds . Although lone individuals occur, this is typically a very sociable animal, living in groups numbering between 10 and 100 individuals; even larger groups may form offshore .

This species has a broad diet, with a wide variety of fish and invertebrates including cephalopods being taken. It varies its hunting methods greatly, and cooperative hunting has been observed in many areas. In Brazil, this species even hunts cooperatively with humans, driving fish into the nets of local fishers. In return, the dolphin takes its share of the fish. 

Physical Description

Bottlenosed dolphins have a fusiform body that lacks many external characteristics of terrestrial mammals, including hair, external ears and hind limbs. A fusiform body reduces turbulence and allows bottlenosed dolphins to cruise underwater at high speeds. Dolphins have front flippers, a dorsal fin and flukes, which are used in swimming. The dorsal fin is tall, curved and set near the middle of the back. These dolphins are typically black to a light gray on their sides, and their bellies are white, sometimes with a slight pink hue.

As noted, there is considerable variation in size and colour between populations of Tursiops truncatus worldwide. Bottlenosed dolphins are typically 84 to 140 centimetres (cm) at birth, and typically have a birth body mass  between 14 and 20 kilograms (kg). Adult males are usually between 244 and 381 cm long, and weigh about 500 kg. Adult females are typically between 228 and 366 cm, and weigh about 250 kg. This sexual dimorphism may be a result of females using energy to achieve sexual maturity at a earlier age than males, while males continue to grow.The European bottle-nosed dolphin tends to be larger and browner than those in the west Altlantic.

Bottlenose dolphins have widely spaced eyes, relatively long flippers, a rounded forehead (called a melon), a relatively short, broad snout, and a mouth that seems permanently twisted into a grin. The dorsal fin is tall and backward-curving from the middle of the back. There are between 18 and 26 pairs of large teeth in each jaw. This dolphin species regularly surfaces to breathe, the maximum time spent under water being about seven minutes.

As is true of all present day Cetacea, the skulls of bottlenosed dolphins are telescoped; that is, the rostra are elongated and tapered anteriorly and the nostrils are moved dorsally. This allows dolphins to breathe more easily during swimming. Bottlenosed dolphins are homeotherms and endotherms. They use insulation, in the form of blubber, a relatively small surface area due to their large body sizes, and vascular shunts that allow selective cooling of certain organs and tissues to help thermoregulate. Bottlenosed dolphins have a thermoneutral zone of 13 to 28 degrees Celsius. If the temperature of their environment drops below 13 degrees Celsius or rises above 28 degrees Celsius, their metabolism enters a sub-optimal region.


caption Shallow sloughs used by the Bottlenose dolphin to herd fish,
Cumberland Island, GA. @ C.Michael Hogan

Key behaviors: natatorial; diurnal; nocturnal; motile; migratory; sedentary; social; dominance hierarchies. Bottlenosed dolphins are exceptionally social animals. They typically live in groups that range in size from a few individuals to over 100, with a group size of fewer than twenty being most common; groups of over 1000 have been recorded at some distance offshore. They participate in fission-fusion societies in which subgroups frequently join or leave the main group.

T.truncatus is a very active mammal and can swim up to speeds of 30 km/hr, although on average the cruising speed ranges from three to six km/hr. The species is noted for racing alongside watercraft. They form several kinds of groups, including nursery groups (mothers and calves), juvenile groups (young dolphins of both genders up to their mid-teens), and adult males (can be found individually or more commonly as bonded pairs). 

Bottlenosed dolphins may engage in aggressive behavior including biting, ramming, and tail slaps; and bonding and acceptance behavior, including stroking and rubbing. Captive dolphin groups are characterized by a dominance hierarchy based on age, size and gender. Large adult males are dominant over other group members. In the absence of males, the largest female assumes dominance.

Bottlenosed dolphins are highly intelligent animals. In captivity this intelligence is demonstrated by their ability to solve problems in experimental trials as well as during their everyday lives. Their cognitive skills are reflected by the speed and effectiveness by which they acquire and perfect behaviors.

Deep water bottlenosed dolphins come up to take breaths every one to two minutes, whereas inshore bottlenosed dolphins take breaths two times per minute. Bottlenosed dolphins have been known, however, to dive deep enough to go 4.5 minutes without taking a breath.

One may wonder how dolphins, as marine animals that must surface to breathe every few minutes, sleep. It turns out that they rest one side of their brains while decreasing their activity level. This allows them rest and yet remain ‘conscious’ to breathe and carry on basic survival behaviors. 

Bottlenosed dolphins also participate in epimeletic behavior, that is, they aid in the recuperation of injured dolphins. This behavior may include protecting the injured dolphin from threats as well as holding the injured dolphin at the surface. Epimeletic behavior is most commonly found among mothers of calves that have died.

Some stay in coastal waters and others swim offshore. In the Atlantic, the coastal dolphins feed mostly on sea trout, croakers, and spot. The offshore population follows the Gulf Stream and feeds on deep-water fish and squid.

Home Range

Density estimates of bottlenosed dolphins range from 0.06 to 1.22 dolphins per square kilometer.The population density appears to be higher inshore. A group's home range is typically 125 square kilometers.

Source: Bas Kers/Encyclopedia of Life

Source: M. Herko/BioLib.cz

Source: Bas Kers/Encyclopedia of Life

Source: JCVD100//Encyclopedia of Life

Voice and Sound Production

Bottlenosed dolphins use sound to communicate with other members of their species. They use both  sounds in the range audilble to humans as well as high frequency echolocation.

Each dolphin is thought to possess its own signature whistle and, once it is developed, it is retained for the duration of the dolphin’s life. Kin recognize one another by their whistles and these sounds help maintain group cohesion. Signature whistles develop in calves as young as one month, allowing them to maintain contact with their mother. Surprisingly, the signature whistle of a male calf tends to resemble its mother's more than that of a female calf. The signature whistle also gives the location and emotional state of each dolphin.

Bottlenosed dolphins also navigate with echolocation, used to detect bottom topography, prey, and the presence of predators. It is even sometimes used to stun prey. Echolocation calls pass through the melon and intramandibular fat body, which contain acoustic lipids; these structures serve as acoustic lenses to focus sound. The intramandibular fat bodies focus sound to each ear, while the melon is used as a lens to focus outgoing sound.

Bottlenosed dolphins also use vision to perceive their surroundings. Like those of humans, their eyes contain rods and cones, but they are not used in the same way as humans. Cones, for example, are used to provide good acuity when light levels are high. These and other adaptations allow dolphins to use their vision at different times of the day and at different depths.


The species mating system is polygynandrous (promiscuous) and T.truncata is a cooperative breeder. Key reproductive features are: Iteroparous; Year-round breeding; Gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); Sexual; Viviparous.

Female dolphins typically reach sexual maturity between five and ten years of age, while males reach sexual maturity between eight and 13 years old. Sexual maturity is usually achieved years before reproduction; males that reach sexual maturity at age ten don’t typically breed until they are at approximately 20 years old. Females produce a single calf in the summer after a gestation period of 12 months. The calf suckles for up to 18 months.

Reproductive seasons vary from region to region. Typically, females ovulate at a particular time of year while males are active throughout the year (but with a peak of testosterone production when females ovulate). Bottlenosed dolphins are polygamous. They engage in mating behavior in either of two ways, in alliances or individually.

Males that form alliances look for females that are in estrous. When males find a female in estrous they separate her from her home range for a chance to mate with her. Sometimes they flank the female to prevent access by other males to insure that only they have the opportunity to mate with her. Waiting for a female to become receptive can take several weeks.

Some males do not engage in alliances, instead remaining in their home ranges. When an estrous female enters the home range of such a male, he attempts to attract her to mate. During courtship, a male postures by arching his back. He strokes and nuzzles the female, and he may clap his jaws or yelp.

Bottlenosed dolphin copulation typically occurs belly-to-belly with both animals facing the same direction, although an animal facing the opposite direction is not uncommon. Intromission lasts only around 10 seconds and involves vigorous pelvis thrusts.

Gestation lasts about 12 months and each pregnancy produces one calf. Females nurse their young from nipples on each side of their genital slit until the calf is between 18 and 20 months. Females provide the bulk of parental investment, investing especially heavily during lactation. Lactating females require 88 to 153 cal/kg as opposed to non-lactating females that typically require 34 to 67 cal/kg.

Bottlenosed dolphins participate in allomaternal care, that is, all of the females within a group help care for each others' offspring. When a bottlenosed dolphin calf is born, it learns to ride the pressure waves alongside its mother during its first few days. The mother assists the calf to keep it alongside her body.  Females also protect calves from predators.

The female Bottlenosed dolphin reproduces every three to six years, with females usually becoming pregnant soon after their calf is weaned. Calves can be born at any time of the year but with a peak in birthing during warmer months. Females can reproduce well into their late forties.


Male bottlenosed dolphins typically live about 40 to 45 years and female dolphins can live over 50 years (the oldest female documented lived to be 53 years old). Bottlenosed dolphins are threatened by a variety of factors, both natural and of human origin. Natural mortality is due to injury, disease and predation.

Because in many cases dolphins are found in shallow waters, they frequently encounter an assortment of human activities. Recreational fishing gear causes many deaths when dolphins become entangled in nets or swallow fishing hooks.

Dolphins are sometimes preyed upon by sharks, although this is may be less of a problem now than in the past due to declining shark populations. One of the largest and most serious threats to bottlenosed dolphins is environmental contamination, caused mainly by the increase of human development along shorelines. Chemicals of human origin find their way into coastal ecosystems through runoff from agriculture, residential and industrial sources.

Distribution and Movements

Bottlenosed dolphins are found in all the world's saline seas and oceans except polar waters. Bottlenosed dolphins are found in bays, estuaries, sounds, open shorelines and large estuarine rivers. The species typically occupies waters with surface temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although some bottlenosed dolphins migrate seasonally (for example, populations along the Atlantic coast), they are typically found in tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate waters.

Distribution of the Common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species


Bottlenosed dolphins are commonly found in coastal waters and along main shipping routes and may be found from deep coastal waters into the shallow water off river entrances, but not in freshwater.

Feeding Habits

The diet of bottlenosed dolphins is broad and varies with geographic location. Inshore bottlenosed dolphins typically feed on fish and invertebrates found near the shoreline, while deep water bottlenosed dolphins typically feed on squid and pelagic fish.

Bottlenosed dolphins found along the U.S. Atlantic coast typically feed on Atlantic croakers (Micropogonias undulatus), ‘spot’ fish (Leistomomus xanthurus), and silver perch (Bairdiella chrysoura), while dolphins in South Africa typically feed on African massbankers (Trachurus delagoae), olive grunters (Pomadasys olivaceum), and pandora (Pagellus bellotti).

Bottlenosed dolphins typically choose prey between five and 30 cm in length. They eat between 4.5 and 16 kg per day, depending on the size of the individual and if it is lactating. Most of the time, bottlenosed dolphins feed individually. At times, however, dolphins participate in cooperative feeding with other dolphins, especially when feeding on a school of prey. They have also been known to trap their prey on the shore, stranding themselves in order to feed on stranded prey ("strand feeding").

In some cases dolphins use echolocation calls to stun their prey. Some bottlenosed dolphins use passive listening rather than echolocation to locate prey. When prey is detected, these dolphins either rush in or alert others of the prey’s presence.

Source: John H. Tashjian/California Academy of Sciences

Near Egmont Key, Tampa Bay, Florida. Source: Bartolomeo Gorgoglione/Encyclopedia of Life

Sea World, San Diego, California. Source: Tanya Dewey/Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

The sharp teeth of these dolphins allow them to grasp prey while the tongue maneuvers prey down the throat. Dolphins teeth are not used to chew and prey is typically swallowed whole. They may break up their prey by shaking it in the air and striking it with their tails, called fish-whacking. Bottlenosed dolphins in Australia have sometimes been observed to mount a sponge on their rostrum to protect their snouts as they forage on the bottom. They have also been known to follow the boats of fisherman and catch discarded prey or bait.

They are hosts for a few species of parasites including the fluke Braunina cordiformis, tapeworms such as Monorygma delphini, roundworms (Anisakis marina), and thorny-headed worms (Corynosoma cetaceum).


The most common predators of bottlenosed dolphins are the larger sharks, such as Bull (Carcharhinus leucas), Tiger (Galeocerdo cuvier), and Dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus). These sharks prey on smaller dolphins, calves and female dolphins rather than large dolphins. It is not uncommon to observe dolphins with shark bites, demonstrating their survival of an attack. Blubber may provide some protection against such predators.

Many shark populations have decreased up to 80 percent since 1970, so that some populations of dolphins may be experiencing lower predation by sharks. More recently, stingrays have been recognized as causing deaths in bottlenosed dolphin populations.

Economic Importance for Humans

Humans receive a considerable amount of economic gain from Bottlenosed dolphins including ecotourism, research and education benefits. They are often used in captivity to swim with humans and perform. Dolphins are used in tours in which participants are educated about the lives of dolphins and encouraged to preserve their livelihood and habitat. There are no known adverse effects of Tursiops truncatus on humans.

Bottlenosed dolphins have also been known to fish cooperatively with humans, letting Brazilian fishermen, for example, know when and where to drop their nets. Bottlenosed dolphins are used for research by the U.S. Navy on echolocation and thermoregulation. These research dolphins have also helped navy divers to find submerged objects in the ocean. Research on bottlenosed dolphins has contributed substantially to our understanding of social communication and behavior and the nature of animal intelligence. (Reynolds et al., 2000)

Threats and Conservation Status

The bottlenose dolphin faces a number of threats including human disturbance, entanglement in fishing nets, and hunting. Like all cetaceans it is vulnerable to chemical and noise pollution. The captivity industry that supplies the world aquarium trade is also a problem .

Bottlenosed dolphins are found in most of the world's saline waters and thus are protected by a wide variety of national laws. Bottlenosed dolphins in the United States are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The goal of this Act is to allow marine species to obtain optimum sustainable population levels keeping in mind the carrying capacity of the habitat. Anyone who removes a marine animal (e.g., a dolphin) without proper procedure faces fines up to $20,000 or periods of incarceration up to one year. There are currently eleven stocks of Tursiops truncatus in U.S. waters, five of which occur in the Gulf of Mexico. The Western North Atlantic Coastal stock is listed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as "depleted" i.e., below the optimum sustainable population.

The Bottlenose dolphin is a United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) priority species . It is protected in UK waters by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Orders 1985; it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure, or harass any cetacean species in UK waters .

 The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS), has been signed by seven European countries, this includes the UK. Provision is made under this agreement to set up protected areas, promote research and monitoring, pollution control and increase public awareness . Under Annex II of the EC Habitats Directive, candidate marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACS) are being set up for this species in Cardigan Bay (Wales) and the Moray Firth (northeast Scotland) .

Bottlenosed dolphins are also protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill of 1998 in Australia. This bill is applied to waters up to 200 miles from the shores of Australia. It involves environmental impact assessments, conservation of biodiversity and endangered species as well as management of protected areas.

Although there are laws that protect bottlenosed dolphins, humans need to become more aware of the way our daily lives affect the livelihood of dolphins. Much of the environmental contamination found in the habitats of bottlenose dolphins are caused by humans. Common pollutants found in the tissues of dolphin are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), used as dielectric fluids in coolants, lubricators and transformers, and pesticide DDTs (1,1-bis-(4-chlorophenyl)-2,2,2-trichloroethane). Eighty percent of the total amount of these toxins in a female dolphin may be transferred through breast milk to its calf, causing suppression of the immune system or in some cases death. It is one thing to make sure that we are not removing dolphins from their habitats but it is also important to make sure their habitats are not being destroyed by our negligence.

IUCN Red List: Least Concern (LC)

US Federal List: No special status

CITES:  Appendix II of CITES

EC Habitats Directive:  Annex II and IV

North and Baltic Sea populations, western Mediterranean and Black Sea populations are included in Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (Bonn Convention), and Appendix II of the Bern Convention .

All cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are listed on Annex A of EU Council Regulation 338/97; they are therefore treated by the EU as if they are included in CITES Appendix I, so that commercial trade is prohibited. In the UK all cetaceans are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985 .

Further Reading

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Life, E. (2012). Common bottlenose dolphin. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/164982


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