Dolphin vs. snake? No, it was a different kind of critter clamped in dolphin’s jaws

What is this female dolphin eating off the coast of South Carolina? It’s not a snake.
What is this female dolphin eating off the coast of South Carolina? It’s not a snake. Photo: Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network

A dramatic image of a dolphin battling what appeared to be a snake off South Carolina’s coast March 1 turned out to be an encounter of an even stranger kind.

The female dolphin was playing with -- and likely ate -- an Atlantic needlefish, a predator that can be as intimidating as most coastal snakes.

One fifth of a needlefish’s body is a long beak-like mouth crammed with “numerous and conspicuous teeth,” according to the S.C.’s Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Studies.

And they have the ability to leap out of water at speeds of up to 38 mph and impale things, including people, says LeisurePro.com.

Lauren Rust of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network took the photo. She describes a strange scene of two predators hopscotching in the water off Kiawah Island, south of Charleston.

“I could see the needlefish jumping out of the water and the dolphins chasing them, and I found it really bizarre,” Rust told the Charlotte Observer.

“I’ve never seen dolphins playing with needlefish before like that. There must have been a lot of needlefish around, because I kept seeing it, over and over, that day. It’s not a typical part of a dolphin’s diet. They’re not a hardy fish.”

Rust’s theory is that the dolphins couldn’t find their preferred prey and needlefish just happened to be plentiful, so fights broke out up and down the beach. Dolphins are “opportunistic feeders and will find alternate food sources” when necessary, she says.

Needlefish grow to just over 2 feet off the Carolinas and “are capable of a very rapid bursts of speed,” according to S.C.’s Baruch Institute.

Attacks on humans by “the flying needle” are rare, but needlefish remain a potential threat because it can “easily rupture organs like eyes, heart, intestines and lungs when it leaps out of the water pointing the needle at the potential threat,” reports AboutAnimals.com.

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.