Photograph by Jim Abernethy, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Two adult Atlantic spotted dolphins.

Photograph by Jim Abernethy, Nat Geo Image Collection

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

You can’t mistake an adult Atlantic spotted dolphin for anything else—the spots are a dead giveaway.

This gregarious cetacean isn’t born with those beauty marks, however. Calves start out gray, like other dolphins. After about three years, they begin to develop speckles. After a few more years, mottled spots begin appearing. Finally, the dolphins mature into adults with light spots on their dark backs and darker ones on their pale bellies. But not all Atlantic spotted dolphins develop spots; those that live in the Gulf Stream far offshore often lack spots.

Atlantic spotted dolphins range across most of the warm Atlantic, usually keeping within 225 miles of the shore. They have long, narrow beaks and bulky heads and bodies.


Living in small- or medium-sized pods, Atlantic spotted dolphins are extremely social, sometimes keeping company with bottlenose dolphins.

They’re also very playful. Boaters in their range frequently find several dolphins riding the bow wave or surfing the wake behind the boat, performing acrobatic leaps, it’s thought just for the fun of it. These stunts have made the dolphins a tourist attraction in the Bahamas, where tour companies lead dolphin-spotting cruises.

The animals have been studied extensively since 1985 by the Wild Dolphin Project in the Bahamas, run by Denise Herzing. There, researchers are creating and innovating existing technology to try to better understand dolphin communication and intelligence.


Atlantic spotted dolphins feed on fish, squid, and small invertebrates. The pod hunts cooperatively at night, circling their prey to prevent them from escaping.


Females, which reach sexual maturity at around nine years old, give birth to one calf and nurse it for up to five years. Atlantic spotted dolphins can live for more than 50 years.


Atlantic spotted dolphins are not considered under threat by IUCN Redlist. Large-scale fisheries occasionally report catching the dolphins in their nets, but IUCN reports no widespread population impacts from those incidents.

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