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Pilot Whale

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A pod of pilot whales (Globicephala melaena) in the Gulf of Maine

A pod of pilot whales (Globicephala melaena) in the Gulf of Maine

© Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation

Pilot whales get their name from the thought that there is a leader, or pilot, for each pilot whale pod.

The phrase "pilot whale" is often used generally to refer to one of the two species of pilot whale - the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) and short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus). This is possibly because the two species look very similar, and identification "in the field" may be difficult.

Differences Between Pilot Whale Species

The most obvious difference between the two species is that long-finned pilot whales tend to live in colder waters and have longer fins, while short-finned pilot whales live in warmer waters and have shorter fins. There are also differences that would only be readily visible in dead whales - differences in number of teeth, skull characteristics (the short-finned pilot whale's skull is shorter and wider than the long-finned pilot whale's skull). These species also differ genetically. Also, each of these species can also likely be split into several subspecies, although that exact classification hasn't been determined yet.

This article profiles pilot whales, with information about characteristics that are shared between the two species. For more information on short-finned and long-finned pilot whales, click on the links above for more specific profiles.

Description:

Pilot whales have dark skin, a very obviously bulbous (rounded) head, large dorsal fins (especially in males), a stocky body and tail stock, and a lighter anchor-shaped patch on their ventral (bottom) side that extends from their chin to their tail flukes.

These whales are odontocetes (toothed whales). Their teeth are used for grasping, but not chewing, their prey.

Pilot whales are about 20 feet long and weigh up to about 5,000 pounds. Males are larger than females and have larger dorsal fins that are very broad at the base.

Like other toothed whales, pilot whales may be found in large groups that may number over 1,000 animals. These are close social groups, often containing related individuals. Because of their tendency to stay together, pilot whale pods may mass strand more than some other species of cetaceans.

Classification:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Superclass: Gnathostoma
  • Superclass: Tetrapoda
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Subclass: Theria
  • Order: Cetartiodactyla
  • Suborder: Cetancodonta
  • Infraorder: Cetacea
  • Superfamily: Odontoceti
  • Family: Delphinidae
  • Genus: Globicephala

Feeding:

Pilot whales eat cephalopods (octopus and squid), fish, and crustaceans . They can dive to over 1,900 feet in depth, and stay underwater for 10-16 minutes. While they primarily inhabit offshore areas, they may travel to inshore areas if prey is more abundant there.

Reproduction:

Like other cetaceans, pilot whales reproduce sexually with internal fertilization. Males and females are not monogamous. The female's gestation period lasts 12-16 months, and calves are about 5-6 feet long when they are born. They may stay with their mother a long time - nursing has been observed for 10-15 years in some short-finned pilot whale calves.

Habitat and Distribution:

Long-finned pilot whales are primarily found in temperate, offshore waters, although they sometimes frequent coastal areas. They are found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and Mediterranean and Black Seas. In the U.S., long-finned pilot whales live off the East Coast down to about the Carolinas.

Short-finned pilot whales live in deep tropical and subtropical waters around the world. In the U.S., they are found in 4 main areas: off the West Coast, off Hawaii, in the Gulf of Mexico and the Western North Atlantic Ocean.

Communication and Vocalizations:

Pilot whales use echolocation to find their prey. They also make whistle and pulse sounds, with the sounds differing slightly in frequency between the two pilot whale species.

Conservation:

Pilot whales are protected in the U.S. by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Threats to these whales include ocean noise, entanglement, and hunting in some areas. They may also be used in aquariums and zoos.

Sources:

  • American Cetacean Society. 2004. Pilot Whales. American Cetacean Society. Accessed September 17, 2012.
  • Discovery of Sound in the Sea. Pilot Whale. Accessed September 30, 2012.
  • Taylor, B.L., Baird, R., Barlow, J., Dawson, S.M., Ford, J., Mead, J.G., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Wade, P. & Pitman, R.L. 2011. Globicephala macrorhynchus. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. . Accessed September 30, 2012.
  • Taylor, B.L., Baird, R., Barlow, J., Dawson, S.M., Ford, J., Mead, J.G., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Wade, P. & Pitman, R.L. 2008. Globicephala melas. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. Accessed September 30, 2012.
  • Urian, K. Long-Finned Pilot Whale (G. melas). Society for Marine Mammalogy. Accessed September 30, 2012.

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