Dolphin Predators: These 6 Animals Kill and Eat Dolphins

Written by Rebecca Mathews
Updated: September 9, 2023
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Dolphins are one of the most intelligent animals on our planet, and in many cases, they are at the top of the food chain. This means they have very few predators. In some habitats, they have no predators at all. Let’s take a look at six dolphin predators that kill and eat dolphins.

These six animals kill and eat dolphins.

Species Overview: Dolphin

Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at dolphins because this will help us understand why they have so few predators.

Dolphins are not fish; they are marine animals in the Cetacea order. There are over 40 dolphin species across the world’s oceans, but the one most people are familiar with is the bottlenose dolphin. That’s because they are the species trained in captivity.

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Dolphins live in social family groups called pods. Females give birth to live young, called a calf, every two to three years. A calf remains with the family pod, but its mother is responsible for raising them.

Streamlined dolphins have two flippers and a strong tail. They can reach a speedy 18 mph and leap 30 feet into the air. Their usual prey includes fish and crustaceans, which they capture with conical teeth.

Long-lived dolphins can reach 60 years, and bottlenose dolphins are especially friendly to humans, often swimming alongside boats and guiding anglers to fish.

Two dolphins jumping in the Mediterranean sea on a clear day, the striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) close-up. Waves and water splashes. A view from the sailing boat. Spain

Dolphins are not fish; they are marine animals in the Cetacea order. Dolphins live in social family groups called pods.

©Aastels/Shutterstock.com

What Animals Eat Dolphins?

Dolphins are apex predators with very few natural enemies. It’s a short list, but here are dolphin predators: These six animals kill and eat dolphins:

Let’s look at each dolphin predator in more detail.

Fish by the general public. Pleasure hunting dolphins sparked an animal welfare outcry, and there were no reports of it continuing after WW2.

1. Orca (Orcinus orca)

Orcas, referred to as killer whales, hunt dolphins on occasion. It’s not common, but orcas are apex predators that consume many different types of sea creatures, so they are not averse to dolphin meat.

Orcas use pod tactics to surround prey, breaking off an individual to attack. They are large, powerful creatures capable of tossing dolphins into the air and tearing off chunks of flesh. Although young or injured dolphins are most susceptible, orcas are more than capable of hunting fully grown dolphins. However, dolphins are similar to orcas in their pod group intelligence, and speed. Oftentimes, orcas find seals and sea lions easier to catch.

killer whale

They are large, powerful creatures capable of tossing dolphins into the air and tearing off chunks of flesh.

©Nick Grobler/Shutterstock.com

All About Dolphin Predators: Orcas

Orcas eat dolphins, but they are actually a type of oceanic dolphin. In fact, orcas are the largest members of the oceanic dolphin family. Orcas live from the arctic to tropical seas, and we can easily recognize them through their distinctive black and white markings. Males reach 20-26 feet long and weigh up to 6.6 tons. Females are usually smaller. An orca calf is born live, measuring around eight feet long and 400 pounds.

Orcas have the horizontally lined tail of dolphin species as opposed to the vertical tail line of sharks. They are streamlined, with quick maneuver side fins and a terrifying erect dorsal fin.

This toothed predator is a carnivore that eats a wide variety of sea creatures. Orcas eat dolphins plus seals, sea lions, rays, sharks, and sea birds. They are apex predators and are even known to attack massive baleen whales. Even great white sharks leave the area when orcas rock up!

Not much can kill and eat a fully grown orca except humans, but large shark species hunt juveniles, or old and injured individuals separated from the highly social pod.

It’s this pod that gives orcas their incredible hunting prowess. One is terrifying enough, but in a pod, they are almost impossible to evade. That’s why “wolves of the sea” is their nickname. Orcas extensively vocalize as they herd and chase prey to exhaustion. Using echolocation, they can identify a meal at any time.

2. Sharks

At least four species of shark eat dolphins. It’s not a regular occurrence because sharks would rather hunt smaller prey that’s easier to catch and devour. Dolphins live in pods, so they are difficult to separate, and they fight back! Sharks are more likely to take young dolphin calves or injured dolphins than a fully grown pod-living adult.

Sharks attack dolphins, from below, gathering speed to ram into one and grab its soft underbelly.

Here are the shark species known to eat dolphins:

Shark
Sharks are more likely to take young dolphin calves or injured dolphins than a fully grown pod-living adult.

All About Tiger Sharks: Dolphin Predators

Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) are fierce predatory fish that chiefly live near the Pacific Islands in warm sub-tropical and tropical water. Tiger sharks are the fourth largest shark in the world. Females reach 16.5 feet long.

Dark stripes run the length of this dolphin eater’s body, resembling a tiger, hence the name “tiger shark.” It’s a suitable name indeed because these sharks are fierce and dangerous, second only to great whites in human attack records.

Apex predator tiger sharks are solitary hunters and often nocturnal. They eat a wide variety of meat, from dolphins to fish, seals, crustaceans, turtles, birds, sea snakes, and sea birds. Their insatiable appetite leads tiger sharks to ingest ocean trash, such as tires and license plates. Clever dolphins avoid areas inhabited by tiger sharks.

Female tiger sharks mate every few years. They hatch their eggs internally, nourish them for 16 months, and give birth to live pups. Animals that do this are ovoviviparous. Tiger sharks are declining in part due to the long breeding cycle but mostly due to overfishing for fins and liver oil. Dolphin meat is regularly used to catch them because tiger sharks eat dolphins in the wild.

Tiger Shark

Dolphin meat is often used to bait tiger sharks in the wild.

©iStock.com/Sean Craft

All About Dolphin-Eating Dusky Sharks

Dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus) are not well known but are prolific dolphin predators.

Dusky sharks live in tropical to warm continental seas where they are apex predators. On the menu are dolphins, sea birds, seals, fish, and human trash.

14-foot-long duskies are called bronze or black whalers due to their large size and dark upper skin. They are long but slender, with sickle-shaped pectoral fins and round snouts. 400-pound dusky sharks migrate between the poles each year and tend to remain nomadic throughout their lifespan. Females are ovoviviparous, and gestation lasts up to two years. After giving birth, female duskies take a year off before mating again.

Due to their large (up to 1/5 of their overall body size) fins, dusky sharks are sought after by human hunters. As we’ve seen, shark fins are popular cuisine, and their large fins are valuable. Hunters use fish or dolphin meat to attract dusky sharks.

8 Sharks Near Delaware’s Coast and Beaches Cover image

Humans hunt dusky sharks due to their large size.

©sirtravelalot/Shutterstock.com

Dolphin Predator: All About Great White Sharks

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are natural predators of dolphins. Many of us are familiar with this shark. It causes the most human fatalities of the shark species (although it’s still rare).

Great whites live in all the major oceans, preferring warm water. The largest specimen caught measured 19.1 feet long and weighed 4,410 lbs. They are massive, powerful mackerel sharks more than capable of hunting and killing dolphins. Great whites can reach 25 mph for short bursts, and their jaws are hugely powerful, built with teeth that slice and tear through flesh.

They are, of course, apex predators, although they leave areas inhabited by orcas. Orcas hunt great whites for flesh and especially their livers, turning the shark upside down to induce a catatonic state before eating the liver.

As well as dolphins, great white sharks eat sea mammals like seals, sea lions, up to 30 species of fish, seabirds, and turtles. Great whites can sniff out a tiny amount of blood in ocean water, so they track and eat wounded animals.

Great white sharks are the ocean's apex predators.

Great white sharks are the ocean’s apex predators.

©iStock.com/ShaneMyersPhoto

All About Bull Sharks: Dolphin Predators

Experts believe bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) are the most aggressive shark species. They are more than capable of killing and eating dolphins.

Bull sharks live worldwide in shallow, warm waters. They are euryhaline, which means they are capable of living in both fresh water and salt water. These powerful sharks have traveled up the Mississippi River to Illinois! Experts think over 500 live in Australia’s Brisbane River.

Bull sharks are stocky, stout creatures. Females grow to eight feet long and weigh 290 lbs. They are generally wider than other shark species, and have smaller snouts. The bite force from these incredible sharks is massive. Tests indicate a bull shark’s bite force is 5,914 newtons. That’s more than enough to disable a dolphin.

Bull sharks hunt in murky waters. Usually solitary, but occasionally, in pairs to tackle larger prey such as other shark species and dolphin pods.

Bull Shark Predators What Eats a Bull Shark Cover image

Bull sharks live in warm waters.

©Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock.com

3. Humans

Humans are dolphins’ top predators. Many cultures eat dolphin meat in their diet. It’s popular in Peru, where their meat is called sea pork. Other dolphin meat-eating countries include Japan, Venezuela, Malaysia, India, South Korea, Greenland, and Nigeria. Dolphin meat isn’t a common dish in North America or Europe.

Another use of dolphin meat is as shark or tuna bait. Shark and tuna fishing countries include Indonesia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Guatemala. Shark fins are very popular in Japan’s soups and noodle dishes.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation group believes more than 100,000 dolphins and whales are killed by humans every year for cuisine and bait purposes. It’s illegal in many areas, so experts think this number is vastly underestimated.

A final reason for humans predating dolphins is competition. Dolphins are opportunistic hunters that eat fish, crustaceans, and squid. Fishermen, whose livelihood depends on catching enough fish, have to compete with better-equipped dolphins. To eliminate the competition, fishermen hunt dolphins.  

Dolphin hunting is controversial, particularly “dolphin drives,” whereby dolphin pods are herded into a cove or onto a beach, where they suffer horrific treatment. Protests chiefly center around the cruelty of dolphin dispatch.  

Did you know that dolphin hunting took place in 1920s Texas? Dolphin hunting cruises were popular in the Gulf of Mexico. At this point in time, dolphins were considered porpoises or fish by the general public. Pleasure hunting dolphins sparked an animal welfare outcry, and there were no reports of it continuing after WW2.

Spear fisherman targeting amberjack in the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico near Anna Maria Island, Florida.

Fishermen will sometimes hunt dolphins to eliminate competition for fish.

©Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com

What Else Eats Dolphins?

We’ve identified dolphin predators, that is, the animals that kill and eat dolphins, but there are other creatures that eat dolphin meat. They are not predators but scavengers. Small parts of dolphin flesh float in the ocean or sink to the ocean floor. Small carnivorous fish, crabs, and lobsters tackle these leftovers.  

Because orcas and sharks tear off lumps of dolphin flesh, it makes a mess, and they miss smaller parts. Nothing is wasted. The ocean’s clean-up crew ensures all dolphin meat is eaten.

How Do Dolphins Escape Predators?

Dolphins are clever mammals. They use their intelligence to evade predators. We’ve seen that dolphins will leave an area containing predators, so that is their first line of defense.

Dolphin pods under attack don’t give in. They use vocalizations to communicate with pod members and attempt to fend off the shark. Often, their numbers and fast swimming ability are enough to make a shark think twice, but persistent sharks receive blows to their soft underbellies. Dolphins use their snouts as battering rams to punch a shark away from the pod.

Dolphin Predators: These Animals Kill and Eat Dolphins

These six animals kill and eat dolphins: Orca, tiger shark, dusky shark, great white shark, bull shark, and humans. Dolphins naturally have very few predators because they are difficult to catch, and they live in thriving social groups. The deadliest dolphin predators on Earth are humans.

Summary of Dolphin Predators: These 6 Animals Kill and Eat Dolphins

NumberAnimals
1Orcas
2Tiger Sharks
3Dusky Sharks
4Great White Sharks
5Bull Sharks
6Humans

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Melinaa.es/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Rebecca is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on plants and geography. Rebecca has been writing and researching the environment for over 10 years and holds a Master’s Degree from Reading University in Archaeology, which she earned in 2005. A resident of England’s south coast, Rebecca enjoys rehabilitating injured wildlife and visiting Greek islands to support the stray cat population.

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