Report Text Dolphin at a Glance
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Dolphin at a Glance
By Frank Sargeant, Projects Editor
The dolphin is the wood duck of pelagic fishes, so spectacularly colorful that it seems impossible it could have evolved by accident. The back and head are iridescent, glowing neon blue and chartreuse green. The sides and belly are gold, sprinkled with bright blue spots. And, like some other pelagics, the fish has the ability to “light up” with shimmering waves of color across its body, almost as if its skin were embedded with moving lights.
In fact, biologists say the fish’s color is the result not only of pigment, but of microscopic structures in the skin, which the fish can manipulate to change its color. The color changes could have evolved for spawning selection, or perhaps as a camouflage when approached by predators, as with many bottom creatures. In any case, the spectacular color in life leaves no doubt when a dolphin dies; the skin almost instantly turns an ugly, blotchy gray-silver or dull yellow.
Dolphins are found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, anywhere that the water remains at 70 degrees or warmer throughout the winter. In U.S. waters they migrate seasonally, following bait northward along the Atlantic coast to Virginia and beyond in spring, back toward the Keys in winter, but good numbers remain in Florida waters throughout the summer as well.
The dolphin is unique among pelagic fishes in that the mature males have a distinctly different shape than the females; the forehead of an adult “bull” is high and blunt, while the “cow” has a more typical, streamlined forehead. (The males look just like the females until they approach adulthood.) There are no reports of the male using this head as a battering ram in mating battles, but it’s pretty clearly a secondary sexual characteristic.
Dolphin reportedly can reach speeds up to 50 mph, and sometimes run down flyingfish in the air, though more commonly they race along just under the surface, watching a flyer and eating it the second it touches down. They also eat lots of squid, small bonito and other pelagic bait.
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