Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) are found in marine environments around the world, almost everywhere except the polar regions. This wide-ranging species has a great deal of genetic diversity and several recognized subspecies. Populations of bottlenose dolphins living in coastal waters (inshore) are smaller and lighter colored than offshore populations that live in the open ocean. Inshore dolphins have proportionally larger flippers and snouts, for increased maneuverability and heat dispersal in shallow and often warmer waters. These coastal populations can be seen in harbors, bays, lagoons, and estuaries, and even venture up the mouths of large rivers like the James. Generally, bottlenose dolphins range in size from 8 – 11 feet long and weigh between 450 – 1,100 pounds, with males tending to be slightly larger than females.
Dolphins are extremely intelligent, social mammals that communicate using whistles, squeaks, and clicks. They travel and hunt together using echolocation in pods of about 15 individuals but can form much larger groups for short periods. Bottlenose dolphins eat a wide variety of fish, as well as eels, squid, and shrimp, all of which they swallow whole. The Latin species name truncates refers to their short, truncated teeth which they use to catch their prey but not to chew. The common name refers to the defined shape of their snout, reminiscent of an old-fashioned gin bottle. The snout is not actually a functional nose. Like all cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), the bottlenose breathes through a blowhole located on top of the head.
Dolphins and porpoises were eaten throughout Europe in the medieval and post-medieval period. On Christian fasting days when eating animals or animal products was not permitted, aquatic mammals like dolphins were considered “fish” and therefore an acceptable substitute. In England, whales, dolphins, porpoises, and sturgeon are designated as “royal fish” and legally belong to the Crown, following a 14th century law that is still on the books today. At Jamestown, sturgeon were an abundant and essential food source in the early years of the colony. Butchered bottlenose dolphin bones are also found in early fort period contexts, demonstrating that the colonists were able to utilize the dolphin populations in coastal Virginia as well.