Dusky Dolphins of Continental Shelves and Deep Canyons

Part of the Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals book series (EBEMM)


Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) exhibit highly flexible foraging and social strategies. Studies in three distinct environments offer a natural experiment for understanding influences shaping dusky dolphin societies. In shallow bays off Patagonia, Argentina, dusky dolphins form small traveling groups during the day in search of small, schooling fish, but fission-fusion of large groups enhances predator detection/avoidance and mating opportunities. Predation risk is also minimized by resting in small groups near shore at night. In the deep open waters off Kaikoura, New Zealand, large mixed age and sex groups and satellite mating and nursery groups occur. Loosely coordinated subgroups forage nocturnally on the deep scattering layer. Large group formation is again an anti-predation strategy. In the shallow wintertime habitat of Admiralty Bay, New Zealand, coordinated bait-ball foraging occurs but in smaller groups than off Patagonia. Outside of the breeding season and in the absence of predation risk, Admiralty Bay grouping patterns are driven by opportunities to secure prey and social partners. Compared to many other delphinids, dusky dolphins are more gregarious yet more loosely bonded. The social brain hypothesis helps to explain the evolution of large relative brain size and complex sociality in dusky dolphins. Bycatch, habitat loss, climate change, and whale-watching are current threats to the species. Application of new technology and research on female behavior, culture, and lesser-studied populations will help to fill knowledge gaps and advance conservation strategies.


Lagenorhynchus obscurus Argentina New Zealand Foraging Behavioral flexibility Grouping patterns Fission-fusion Social structure Intelligence 



I thank Bernd and Mel Würsig for introducing me to dusky dolphins and for their generous support and hospitality during graduate studies and field research. I also thank Alaska NASA EPSCoR, Earthwatch Institute, Encounter Foundation, Herchel Smith-Harvard Undergraduate Science Research Program, Marlborough District Council, National Geographic Society/Waitt Fund Grant, New Zealand Department of Conservation, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG), Tom Slick Graduate Fellowship, University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), and University of Sydney for funding. I am also grateful for the multitude of research assistants and students at TAMUG and UAS who assisted with data collection and analysis over the years.

Supplementary material

Video S1

A large mixed group of approximately 200–300 dusky dolphins swims off Kaikoura, New Zealand. Here, the research vessel is near the rear, peripheral side of the group where mother-calf pairs often travel together (Fanucci-Kiss 2015). Taken under DOC permit 37696-MAR. (MP4 10152 kb)

Video S2

Animal-borne cameras permit individual focal follows and fine-scale analysis of subsurface behaviors from the “animal’s perspective”. Analysis of video footage obtained from a dusky dolphin tagged off New Zealand enables an assessment of social parameters such as sociability (no. dolphins in view/min) and flipper rubbing (time 0:04) and mother-calf behaviors such as infant (time 0:04) and echelon (time 0:07) position swimming and nursing (time 0:47). Taken under DOC permit 37696-MAR. (MP4 23852 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Natural SciencesUniversity of Alaska SoutheastJuneauUSA

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