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Winter diet shift of long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis) feeding in the sardine run off KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

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Abstract

Unpredictable inter-annual variations in the timing, spatial extent and intensity of the sardine run (Sardinops sagax) have been documented in recent years along the coastline of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This study aimed to determine whether variations in the availability of sardine were reflected in the diet and condition of common dolphins (Delphinus capensis) over the past three decades. Stomach contents from 95 common dolphins incidentally caught between 2000 and 2009 were analysed and compared to historical data collected between 1972 and 1992. A shift in the principal prey species consumed by the dolphins was observed over the past 30 years. Prior to 1992, sardine comprised up to 49 % of the total stomach contents by mass, whilst chub mackerel (Scomber japonicus) was the dominant prey recorded in the stomach contents between 2000 and 2009 (66 %). As common dolphins prey on locally abundant fish species, this dietary shift may indicate changes in the availability of the most abundant fish prey. Stable isotope analyses of tooth tissue revealed no significant changes in the δ15N and δ13C isotopic ratios over the past three decades (P = 0.283 for N and P = 0.922 for C). Blubber thickness as a percentage of body length and blubber weight as a percentage of total body weight were assessed as indicators of animal condition. No significant changes in proportional blubber weight or blubber thickness were seen over the last 40 years (1970–2009) for all age cohorts. This species appears to be well adapted to cope with changes in prey species availability, without impacting on body condition.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Operation and Research staff at the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, as well as the Port Elizabeth Museum, for providing logistical support and access to samples from by-caught dolphins. Funding for this project was provided by the National Research Foundation (NRF—SeaChange programme, grant number: 65756) to SP, and the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) and Rhodes University to SA. We would also like to thank Janet Coetzee for her valuable insight on improving an earlier version of the manuscript and Dr. Hein Slabbert for providing a dental drill to sample the dolphin teeth.

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Ambrose, S.T., Froneman, P.W., Smale, M.J. et al. Winter diet shift of long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis) feeding in the sardine run off KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Mar Biol 160, 1543–1561 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-013-2208-6

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