Not all members of a population are ecologically equivalent. Some individuals use only a small subset of the resources used at the population level and are known as individual specialists. My research documents that the bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay demonstrate intense individual specialization.
Multiple stable isotope samples from dolphins over their lifetime provide an indication of how faithful they are to particular dietary habits (foraging habitat or trophic level). In the figure, we see that individual tend to possess small ellipses indicating that the dietary habits of individuals are consistent over the lifetime. In short, bottlenose dolphins individually specialize in both habitat and trophic level. This likely relates to learned foraging behavior passed on from mother to calf.
My work demonstrating unique differences in foraging habits among individual bottlenose dolphins has profound implications for management. Many conservation strategies focus on protecting one habitat type or prey resource. However, in populations where individuals utilize different resource pools, promoting an “average” resource may harm those that specialize. Additionally, specialist individuals will be more severely impacted by disturbances to their preferred habitats. Because some intraspecific foraging specializations increase exposure to foodborne pathogens and disease, assessing individual variation will play a critical role in understanding both conservation management and certain phenomena in disease ecology, including unusual mortality events.