Marine aquaculture and bottlenose dolphins’ (Tursiops truncatus) social structure
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In this study, we investigate association patterns of 249 bottlenose dolphin feeding groups off Sardinia Island (Italy) from January 2000–May 2007 and describe how their association behaviour is related to their response to food patches created by a marine fin fish farm. We also tested the hypothesis that dolphins have different social structures with different feeding activities: Associations should decrease during opportunistic feeding behaviours as it is easier to capture prey, and cooperation is not as necessary. Sixteen individually identified bottlenose dolphins were observed participating in both opportunistic and not opportunistic feeding activities, with a mean of 30 ± 8 times and 9.6 ± 1 times, respectively. Bottlenose dolphins show non-random social behaviour during feeding and this behaviour differs depending on their specific foraging activity. Dolphin associations during feeding can be divided into three categories: acquaintances, affiliates, and feeding associates. Association behaviour during fish farm feeding is consistent with our hypothesis that during opportunistic behaviours, benefits from cooperation decrease, as it is easier to capture prey. Group size homogeneity in both feeding activities demonstrates that the number of dolphins engaging in foraging is not necessarily related with cooperation levels. Moreover, an adult dolphin may prefer to associate with a specific individual, independent of the sex, who shares the same foraging priorities. This study is the first to show how aquaculture is not only directly affecting marine predators but could also indirectly affect their social structure and behaviour.