Mention "dolphins" to a football fan, and the brawny crew in Miami most likely springs to mind. But Tampa Bay has its own share of the marine mammal - 550 of them, by best estimates.
While researchers have identified more than 850 bottlenose dolphins in the bay, only about two-thirds are thought to reside here year round, living in five separate communities.
And many have called Tampa Bay home for decades. Photos show some dolphins have lived here since the late 1980s. That might not be surprising, given the fact bottlenose dolphins often live for 40 or 50 years.
Dolphins may resemble oversized fish, but they are actually air-breathing mammals from the Cetacea order, putting them in the same category as whales and porpoises. Often you'll see bottlenose dolphins breaking the surface of Tampa Bay to catch a breath through their blow hole, or simply to frolic with their pals.
Bottlenose dolphins use a complex system of squeaks and whistles to communicate with one another. The dolphins also make use of echolocation to find their prey. That means they make sounds that travel underwater and then bounce back when the sounds encounter an object.
Dolphins are carnivores, eating fish, shrimp, squid and other crustaceans. They use their teeth to grasp their prey, then swallow it whole.
Dolphins in the Tampa Bay area tend to grow to about 8 feet long, and weigh around 400 to 600 pounds. The part of the dolphin that usually pokes out of the water is known as the dorsal fin. The tail flukes propel the mammal along, and it steers using its pectoral flippers.
Dolphins hang out together in pods, but they're also really big on male bonding. These guys can pal around for years, and researchers have found that those males who have a close buddy sire more calves than those who don't. They've been spotted tag-team feeding dolphin calves, warding off sharks and keeping other beaus at bay.
Although females can start bearing calves at around the age of 5, researchers have found that motherhood can last till they're well into their 40s, and calves of older mothers often have greater chances of survival. A nursing mother can chow down on 30 pounds of fish per day, and the young stick close to mom for the first few years of their lives.
Sharks are the only natural predators of dolphins, but humans are becoming a bigger threat. Scientists have found accumulations of chemical compounds like PCBs and DDT in bottlenose dolphins, which they can pass on to their nursing calves. Dolphins also have exhibited signs of respiratory ailments, possibly from breathing polluted air.
Dolphins also have become extremely adept at following boats, looking for a handout, or snagging bait or fish from anglers' lines. That increases the chances they'll be injured by a boat propeller, fishing hook or fishing line. Like all marine mammals, bottlenose dolphins are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Researchers affiliated with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota have studied dolphins in Tampa and Sarasota bays for decades. To learn more about this work, visit http://www.sarasotadolphin.org ∞