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Bottlenose Dolphin Facts | Scotland Wildlife Guide

HABITAT

The Moray Firth in northeast Scotland is home to the most northerly resident population of bottlenose dolphins on Earth, numbering around 130 at peak times. These are large dolphins, with distinctive dorsal fins and a propensity to provide stunning aerobatic displays.

While much of the Moray Firth population remains in the area year-round, many dolphins move further down the east coast during the colder months. Summer is by far the best time for viewing this species, as migratory groups and individuals may appear almost anywhere.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Bottlenose dolphins are the largest of the beaked dolphins; head and body length is 5.7 to 13 feet, with males being much larger than females. Bottlenose dolphins are distinguished by the short, well-defined snout or beak which is about three inches long. They have a larger brain than those of humans and show a high degree of intelligence.

FEEDING HABITS

When feeding in shallow waters, they engage in cooperative feeding, where the leader will use its tail to create a “net” of sediment to encircle a school of fish. When the fish start leaping to escape the temporary enclosure, the rest of the dolphins will move in and snatch the fish out of the air.

BEHAVIOR

Bottlenose dolphins are highly social animals. Nearshore, they congregate in small groups of approximately 10, but offshore they sometimes gather in pods of up to 100 individuals. The limbic system in their brains, the area that processes emotions, is more complex than in the human brain, and it is believed that social interactions are critical to their emotional wellbeing.

These dolphins are also known for having individual “signature” whistles. Each dolphin develops a unique whistle by the time they are a year old that remains relatively constant throughout their lifetime. This not only allows companions to find each other when they are not in visual contact, they can also use each other’s signature whistles to address a specific dolphin.

Scientists are just beginning to understand the depth and extent of dolphin intelligence. Their brain-to-body ratio is second only to humans, and the complexity of their brains, indicated by the amount of folding in the cortex, exceeds ours. They have an abundance of “spindle cells” which guide reasoning, communicating and problem solving, and they are able to recognize themselves in a mirror at seven months of age – five months earlier on average than human babies can.

It is impossible to say whether humans or dolphins are “smarter,” because the skills needed to succeed in each of our environments are so different. However, when you see a bottlenose dolphin playing in the bow wake from a boat, perfectly in sync with its companions, living in balance with its surroundings, it’s hard not to feel a bit of envy.
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