Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC San Diego

UC San Diego Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC San Diego

By the Light of the Moon: North Pacific Dolphins Optimize Foraging with the Lunar Cycle


The influence of the lunar cycle on dolphin foraging behavior was investigated in the productive, southern California Current Ecosystem and the oligotrophic Hawaiian Archipelago. Passive acoustic recordings from 2009 to 2015 were analyzed to document the presence of echolocation from four dolphin species that demonstrate distinct foraging preferences and diving abilities. Visual observations of dolphins, cloud coverage, commercial landings of market squid (Doryteuthis opalescens) and acoustic backscatter of fish were also considered in the Southern California Bight. The temporal variability of echolocation is described from daily to annual timescales, with emphasis on the lunar cycle as an established behavioral driver for potential dolphin prey. For dolphins that foraged at night, the presence of echolocation was reduced during nights of the full moon and during times of night that the moon was present in the night sky. In the Southern California Bight, echolocation activity was reduced for both shallow- diving common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and deeper-diving Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) during times of increased illumination. Seasonal differences in acoustic behavior for both species suggest a geographic shift in dolphin populations, shoaling scattering layers or prey switching behavior during warm months, whereby dolphins target prey that do not vertically migrate. In the Hawaiian Archipelago, deep-diving short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and shallow-diving false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) also showed reduced echolocation behavior during periods of increased lunar illumination. In contrast to nocturnal foraging in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, false killer whales in the main Hawaiian Islands mainly foraged during the day and the lunar cycle showed little influence on their nocturnal acoustic behavior. Different temporal patterns in false killer whale acoustic behavior between the main and northwestern Hawaiian Islands can likely be attributed to the presence of distinct populations or social clusters with dissimilar foraging strategies. Consistent observations of reduced acoustic activity during times of increased lunar illumination show that the lunar cycle is an important predictor for nocturnal dolphin foraging behavior. The result of this research advances the scientific understanding of how dolphins optimize their foraging behavior in response to the changing distribution and abundance of their prey.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View