Dolphin Battles Eight-Legged Prey: Tough Encounter With Octopus

olphins have long been known to be intelligent creatures, capable of using tools and exhibiting complex social behaviors. But did you know that some populations of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Australia have developed a unique hunting strategy for their favorite food – octopus?

In a recent study published in Marine Mammal Science, a team of researchers from Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit documented the fascinating behavior of dolphins in southwest Australia who have figured out how to catch and eat octopus, despite their lack of hands or long necks.

According to the study, dolphins in this population have developed a specific technique for handling octopus that involves biting off the head, shaking the body, and repeatedly slamming it against the water until the arms are tenderized and the suction cups are no longer functional. Once the octopus has been sufficiently “tenderized,” the dolphins enjoy their meal in bite-sized pieces.

The researchers documented 45 octopus-handling events between 2007 and 2013, and noted that dolphins risk their lives to eat the octopus. In fact, in 2012 in Greece, an octopus latched onto a dolphin’s genitals, and just a few weeks ago in Australia, an octopus clung to a dolphin’s back dangerously close to its blowhole.

So why do dolphins go through all this effort? Dr. Kate Sprogis, a behavioral ecologist at Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit and lead author of the study, believes that dolphins seek out octopus opportunistically, or when they need nutrients they can’t find elsewhere.

Interestingly, octopus-eating by dolphins peaked in winter and spring when water in the area is choppy, with less visibility, perhaps making a dolphin’s sneak attack more successful. This is also octopus mating season, which may mean they’re more vulnerable to attack. Octopus can spend about a month slowly dying after mating or brooding their eggs, which could make them easier targets, Dr. Sprogis speculated.

While the researchers were able to document the behavior above water, they are eager to learn more about what happens below the surface and how widespread this octopus-tossing behavior is among other populations of dolphins.

In the end, this fascinating behavior sheds new light on the ingenuity and adaptability of these incredible creatures. And who knows – maybe humans can learn a thing or two about resourcefulness from our aquatic counterparts.

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