What Do Dolphins Eat? 10+ Foods in their Diet

Written by Heather Ross
Updated: September 16, 2022
© iStock.com/savilleization
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Key Points:

  • Carnivorous dolphins mostly feast on fish, crustaceans, squids, and jellyfish.
  • Dolphins are opportunistic hunters, so they will eat what is readily available in their environment. They use echolocation to locate their prey.
  • Sharks and killer whales eat dolphins, but oftentimes, it isn’t worth the hassle.
  • Each dolphin species will eat a distinctive diet. River dolphins, for example, eat freshwater crustaceans and carp.

Ask anyone about the type of food that a dolphin eats, and you’ll probably get the same answer – fish! After all, fish are in high abundance in all of the different waters that dolphins live in. However, these creatures tend to be quite flexible in the foods that they consume, taking advantage of what’s around them. Fish is often their preferred food, but they’ll also consume seaweed, shellfish, other invertebrates, or even rocks. While this resourceful nature works well for many species, it also puts them at risk for consuming plastic and other debris that collects in the water. Read on to learn more about what dolphins eat.

Foods That Dolphins Eat

What Do Dolphins Eat
Dolphins eat squid, jellyfish, fish, and crustaceans.

©A-Z-Animals.com

Dolphins are carnivores that feed mostly on fish but will also eat squids, crustaceans, and jellyfish. Some larger species of dolphins will even feed on marine mammals such as seals and sharks!

For most dolphins, the vast majority of their prey are fish. Studies of bottlenose dolphins found that 98% of their prey volume was fish that included eels, hake, and mullet fish. However, the diets of dolphins will vary by habitat and species. For example, the diet of dusky dolphins off the coast of South America eat substantially more anchovies.

While bottlenose dolphins are commonly thought of when people talk about dolphins, there are more than 40 dolphin species in the world! Dolphins that live along coastlines will have vastly different diets than dolphins that live out in the ocean, for example.

One interesting observation scientists have been studying is whether fish traveling in huge schools is an adaptation that helps them hear the clicks from dolphins on the hunt! That is to say, dolphins are such a ravenous eater of fish that they may be causing adaptations in many fish species!

A List of Foods that Dolphins Eat

Dolphins have a diet that includes:

  • Small Fish
  • Eels
  • Hake
  • Cod
  • Crabs
  • Shrimp
  • Squid
  • Croaker fish
  • Pilchard
  • Jellyfish
  • Anchovies
  • Shrimp
  • Carp
  • Goby fish

How Dolphins Hunt for Prey

Most dolphins locate their food source with echolocation. The clicking noises that they make show them where they can find fish. These mammals will chase and encircle fish to feast upon as a pod, simply opening their mouth to catch it. If the fish is too big to eat whole, they will sometimes break up the fish by slamming it on the water’s surface.

Baby dolphins primarily rely on their mothers for milk. However, as the baby grows, they will consume up to 30 pounds of food a day, working within their family to capture prey. Rarely will you see a baby dolphin hunting for food on their own.

What Eats Dolphins?

Even with the diet of a carnivore, dolphins aren’t shielded from other predators in their surroundings. Sharks are a significant threat in the ocean, though some species like the tiger, dusky, bull, and great white sharks are the biggest enemies. Sharks will go after adults or calves, though killer whales also hunt other dolphins when the opportunity is there.

Due to their high fat content, dolphins are a hearty meal for a predator if they are willing to do the work to catch one. Dolphins are extremely defensive. They will ferociously circle the weakest in their pod to ward off a predator. When attacked, dolphins will viciously fight back; they can even kill sharks!

Food Preferences Between Dolphin Species

Crustaceans are the main part of a dolphin’s diet.

©iStock.com/grafxart8888

Though fish is an obvious choice for dolphins, the specific diet of each dolphin species varies slightly. The dolphin is an opportunistic carnivore, and their main diet will depend on what that particular species is around the most. Let’s take a look at some of the species of dolphins and what food they prefer in their habitat.

Deep Water Dolphins

Deep-water dolphins, also known as pelagic dolphins, include the rough-toothed dolphin, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, and Risso’s dolphins. The climate of these waters gives them constant access to squid and jellyfish, making them essential parts of the dolphin’s diet.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, which typically live along the Florida coast, swim to great depths to eat fish like mullet and catfish. Bottlenose dolphins. Dusky dolphins, found in deep waters in the southern hemisphere, prefer a more varied diet than the bottlenose dolphin. In addition to fish, they also seek out shrimp, squid, and anchovies in the ocean waters they live in.

River Dolphins

River dolphins have access to freshwater fish in high abundance that dolphins in the ocean do not. Primarily, dolphins like the Indus River dolphin and the Amazon River dolphin tend to consume the freshwater crustaceans and fish in their habitat. The former has a particular love for gobies and carp in their diet.

Spinner Dolphins

Spinner dolphins prefer the warm waters of tropical and subtropical climates. They live in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, giving them plenty of variety to choose from. Fish is a staple of their diet, preferring smaller fish that quickly fill up their stomach. Since they dive to depths of up to 1,000 feet below the surface, they’ll also consume jellyfish, krill, shrimp, and squid.

Killer Whales

The killer whale is a part of the dolphin family, and their massive size requires equally massive food intake. While they’ll eat fish like other dolphin family members, their food needs to be at a much grander scale to satisfy their caloric needs. Often, the whale will eat other sea mammals, including dolphins! Other mammals that might be on the menu for the killer whale include seals, sea lions, and other species of whales.

Larger dolphins tend to reside at the top of the food chain, making them apex predators with no other species that hunt them.

What Do Bottlenose Dolphins Eat?

bottlenose dolphin jumping out of the water
Bottlenose dolphins mostly eat fish, but the specific fish varies by their location.

©Tory Kallman/Shutterstock.com

Bottlenose dolphins mostly eat fish, but will also eat cephalopods (squids and octopus), and crustaceans (crabs and shrimp). A study conducted in 2017 into the diets of bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Cadiz found that 98% of bottlenose dolphins’ prey was fish, 1.5% were cephalopods, and .3% were crustaceans.

Surprisingly, the most popular fish that bottlenose dolphins ate were from the conger eel family. After eels bottlenose dolphins mostly consumed hake, mullet fish, and bandfish. In different regions, bottlenose dolphin diets will change. Near shorelines they’ll mostly hunt for pelagic fish while dolphins further out to see will adjust their diets. However, the one commonality is that bottlenose dolphins get the vast majority of their diet from fish!

Up Next…

Learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about dolphins!


The Featured Image

dolphin leaping at sunset
dolphin leaping at sunset
© iStock.com/savilleization

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About the Author

Heather Ross is a secondary English teacher and mother of 2 humans, 2 tuxedo cats, and a golden doodle. In between taking the kids to soccer practice and grading papers, she enjoys reading and writing about all the animals!

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