Whales and Dolphins are Thankful for High-Quality Prey

Written by on November 22, 2012 in Marine Life
Common dolphin.

Short-beaked common dolphin (shown here) and the striped dolphin (below) are similar in size but have very different diets. Photo credit: NOAA.

New research shows that the survival of whales and dolphins depends on the quality of their diets.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and University of La Rochelle (ULR) published a study yesterday showing that marine predators like whales and dolphins need to maintain a high-energy diet in order to keep up with their high energy prey.

“The conventional wisdom is that marine mammals can eat anything,” said co-author Andrew Trites, a marine mammal expert at UBC.  “However, we found that some species of whales and dolphins require calorie rich diets to survive while others are built to live off low quality prey—and it has nothing to do with how big they are.”

By comparing the diets of 11 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, the researchers found that differences in the size of the predators did not explain the differences in the quality of prey they consumed.  The real explanation was found in the muscles.

“High energy prey tend to be more mobile, and require their predators to spend more energy to catch them,” explained Trites.  “The two have co-evolved.”

First author and post-doctoral fellow at ULR, Jérôme Spitz, noted that the research will help scientists learn more about the impact of resource changes to marine mammals.

“Species with high energy needs are more sensitive to depletion of their primary prey,” explained Spitz.  “It is no longer a question of how much food do whales and dolphins need, but whether they are able to get the right kinds of food to survive.”

Striped dolphin.

Striped dolphin. Photo credit: NOAA/SWFSC.

To learn more:

Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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  1. Ja Totte says:

    Hi Emily, the striped dolphin and the spinner dolphin (of Stenella genus) appear to have similar skin colour shading including the darker strip from back of eye back and down to wards their pectoral fin. I was filming some spinners the other day and was wondering if they were perhaps a mixed pod with stripped dolphins – pod size approx 200.
    Any info in connection with different species known to be found together would be appreciated. Regards, Ja

  2. Emily says:

    Hi Ja — I’m not a dolphin expert, but as far as I know, striped dolphins are sometimes seen swimming with common dolphins but I haven’t heard of them mixing with spinners. As the study in this article suggests, they have such different diets that it is unlikely they would benefit from swimming together, although anything is possible. I’ll keep looking to see if I can find some more useful information for you. Also, I would love to see the footage you got of the dolphins so if you put it online, let me know! Thanks, Emily