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Ecological factors such as habitat and food availability affect the social structure of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.). Here, we describe the social structure of bottlenose dolphins (T. truncatus) in Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica, a semi-enclosed, fjord-like tropical embayment resembling a pelagic system. We also examine behaviour-linked social strategies by comparing social structure relative to behavioural state: feeding versus non-feeding. We analysed 333 sightings over 210 days from boat-based surveys. Despite the uniqueness of the area, the 47 analysed adults had a social structure similar to other populations: a well-differentiated fission-fusion society with sex-specific patterns of associations and aggression. These results indicate that differences in social structure relative to other populations were a matter of degree. Association strength of dyads was highly correlated across behavioural states, indicating constraints on social fluidity. Males displayed a marked difference in lagged association rate and females displayed a small difference in association homogeneity between states. We suggest this difference in population-wide social connections between behavioural states, particularly for males, was due to mating strategies, a pressure which is strongest during non-feeding behaviour and relaxed during feeding. This finding highlights the importance of considering behavioural state when examining individual bonds and the behavioural plasticity for which the bottlenose dolphin is well known.


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Royal Society Open Science