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Dolphin Species: Short-finned Pilot Whale
Globicephala macrorhynchus

The short-finned pilot whale is a distinctive, medium-sized whale. It has a long, slender body, with a thick, keeled tail stock. The head is bulbous, and the pronounced melon becomes exaggerated in mature males and overhangs the rostrum. There is a small, insignificant beak and wide, short, upwards-slanting mouth.

The dorsal fin is low and falcate, with a rounded tip, concave trailing edge, and very broad base. It is located one-third of the way back from the snout to the tail, and may vary in shape according to sex and age. The tail flukes have sharply pointed tips, a distinct notch, and concave trailing edges. The pectoral flippers have a gently curved leading edge, without the more noticeable elbow of the long-finned pilot whale’s flipper, and they are shorter, being less than 15% of the body length, compared with greater than 16% in the long-finned pilot whale.

The short-finned pilot whale is predominantly black on the dorsal surface and flanks, with faint white throat and genital patches on the ventral surface. There is an indistinct, lighter, post-dorsal saddle on some individuals, which may vary geographically (for example, the saddle is absent or only faintly perceptible on short-finned pilot whales of the eastern tropical Pacific, although in some individuals, it may be large and conspicuous, and may be more distinct on short-finned than long-finned pilot whales. Many populations also have a distinct ‘post-orbital’ stripe, rising up from behind the eye to the leading edge of the dorsal fin. New-born pilot whales are light grey to cream coloured, with muted pattern. They begin to darken early in the first year.

Short-finned pilot whales have seven to nine peg-like teeth in each row, fewer teeth than the long-finned pilot whale.

Individual short-finned pilot whales may be identified, based on naturally occurring marks and scars on the dorsal fin and back, some of which are pigmentation patterns.

Adult short-finned pilot whales range in size from 3.6 to 7.2 m in length. Off Japan, studies indicate that there may be two morphologically distinct forms, a ‘southern’ form and a ‘northern’ form. The southern form is smaller than the northern. Northern form: males reached up to 7.2 m in length and females reached up to 5.1 m in length. Southern form: males reached up to 5.25 m in length and females reached 4.05 m in length. There is obvious sexual dimorphism in short-finned pilot whales, with adult males on average 1.3 times longer than females, and twice as heavy.
Mortality Female short-finned pilot whales may live up to 62 years, and males to around 45 years. Pilot whales are susceptible to mass stranding, often in large numbers. Killer whales and large sharks may prey upon them.
Distribution The short-finned pilot whale is widespead in tropical and warm temperate waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.

In the eastern North Pacific, the range of the short-finned pilot whale extends from the tropics, northwards to British Columbia. They are most abundant off central California and are commonly observed throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

Off South America, their distribution is poorly known, although they are thought to be present as far south as Peru and Brazil.

They are common along the Japanese coast southward into the south Pacific, where the species has been reported from Indonesia and as far south as Tasmania. Both species of pilot whale are widespread in the Indian Ocean in both coastal and oceanic waters, although short-finned pilot whales seem to predominate in the north and around Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, and Oman.

In the Atlantic, the species has been recorded as far north as Delaware Bay, United States in the west and France in the east, but usually is not found north of Bermuda and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (USA). They range across the North Atlantic from North America to Madeira and the Azores, the Canary Islands and north-west Africa, south to central west Africa. They have not been reported from the Mediterranean. They are present in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

The short-finned pilot whale is considered to be abundant world-wide, but some populations are depleted. Populations and abundance of short-finned pilot whales are not well defined, except off Japan where two morphologically distinct, allopatric forms have been recognised. Off Japan, the northern form numbers only an estimated 4,600 animals. The southern form is estimated to number 53,000 individuals.
Habitat In general, the short-finned pilot whale inhabits tropical and sub-tropical areas of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They tend to be oceanic in habit, and generally prefer deep water. In winter and spring, pilot whales seem to cluster in squid spawning areas for example, in the southern Californian Bight, often at the heads of deep submarine canyons. Studies off the Canary Islands, found that they seem to favour areas where the sea bed is characterised by high relief, such as escarpments and sea mounts (rather than basins and plains), and strong currents which may induce upwelling and support higher prey densities. In the western North Pacific, the short-finned pilot whale occurs in waters with surface temperatures above 15 to 16 degrees centigrade and under the influence of the Kuroshi Current and its tributaries.
Migration Definite migrations have not been documented, but short-finned pilot whales seem to travel widely. Movements related to both prey distribution and associated with warm currents have been noted, for example off northern Japan and southern California. In both areas, short-finned pilot whales move into inshore waters at certain times of the year, possibly following spawning squid. Their distribution may also vary seasonally in parts of the Caribbean, where they have been described as a ‘visitor’ during the warmer months between April and October. It seems to be seen more often in summer and in greater numbers.

These movement patterns are not noted throughout the short-finned pilot whales distribution, however. Records from the Indian Ocean do not indicate any clear temporal pattern of migrations or seasonal changes in any region. Some populations of short-finned pilot whales are present year round, such as those in Hawaii and the Canary Islands.

Feeding Pilot whales are considered to primarily feed on squid, although they occasionally feed on fish. Off Japan, prey items included: Japanese common squid, two species of flying fish, giant octopus, and two other squid species. The stomach contents of four pilot whales killed as a result of fisheries interaction in the Southern Californian Bight were all found to contain beaks of the squid, Loligo, as well as gonatid squid species, similar to those from the stomachs of deep diving marine mammals such as sperm whales and elephant seals.

Groups of pilot whales often travel abreast when foraging, in long lines of individuals, each separated by a few metres. This is thought to be an effective prey detection strategy.

The movements of short-finned pilot whales probably follow the seasonal abundance and distribution of the squid, whilst off central and southern California, there is evidence that the short-finned pilot whale selectively feeds on the squid Loligo sp., at least in autumn and winter. Some studies of stomach contents indicate that pilot whales make deep dives when foraging.

In captivity, short-finned pilot whales were reported to feed predominantly at night

Motion Pilot whales may be active at the surface, spy-hopping, lob-tailing and occasionally breaching. Often, however, they are relatively unobtrusive at the surface, and do not bow-ride vessels. When resting, pilot whales merge into groups and lie almost motionless near the surface. Adult males have been observed patrolling the perimeter of a loafing pod.

From short-finned pilot whales examined off Japan, the following information was obtained on lengths and ages upon attainment of sexual maturity:

  • Northern form : Males - 5 to 5.9 m in length (average 5.5 to 5.6 m), and an average age of about 17 years. Age at asymptotic body length was 25 to 30 years. Females - Fifty percent of females examined were sexually mature at between 3.9 and 4.0 m in length. The average age at attainment of sexual maturity was 8.5 years (range 5.5 to 11.5 years). Age at asymptotic body length was 25 to 30 years.
  • Southern form : Males - 4.22 m in length and at a similar age to the northern form animals. Age at asymptotic body length was approximately 27 years. Females - mean body length was 3.16 m. Average age at attainment of sexual maturity was 8.5 years (range was 5.5 to 11.5 years). Age at asymptotic body length was 22 years in ‘southern’ females

Off Japan, the mating season was found to be August to November, peaking in October/November for the northern form, and January to August, peaking in May, for the southern form.

It has been estimated that gestation may last for 14 to 15 months, (although some scientists consider that a 12-month gestation may be more likely). The length of lactation varies considerably between individuals, but usually lasts at least two years. Calves are generally about 6 months old when they begin to take solid food, although they often continue to suckle until up to the age of at least three years. The calves of older females may be nursed for considerably longer than the minimum of two years, and the care of successive offspring frequently overlaps. Some males of up to 14 years old were found to be suckling. The mean reproductive cycle is calculated to be between 4.5 and almost 6 years.

Reproductive activity of females is thought to decline with increasing age, and probably usually ceases at around 37 years of age. There are believed to be significant numbers of post-reproductive females in the population. Reproductive senescence occurs among some females aged over 28 years, although one female was found to be lactating at 43.5 years old.

Social Behavior
Short-finned pilot whales are gregarious animals and rarely found alone. Groups range in size, up to several hundred animals, but more often they are found in pods of 15 to 30 individuals. The schools are composed of adult males and females, spanning the entire range of age and reproductive status, and immature animals of both sexes. It appears, from initial studies, that pilot whales live in stable, cohesive, female-based schools. The mother-calf association is thought to last until around the age of sexual maturation in males (at 15 to 22 years) and perhaps after maturation in females (7 to 12 years). Old and post-reproductive females comprise a significant part of the school, and probably contribute towards its maintenance and the survival of its younger individuals.

The cohesiveness of the schools is evidenced by the frequency with which they are involved in mass stranding incidents. Furthermore, maternal investment is substantial.

Some females have a post-reproductive life span of 20 to 30 years (the mean is 14 years), which is very unusual in wild animals. There is evidence of both non-reproductive mating, and extended periods of lactation in post-reproductive females. This might enhance school stability and increase reproductive success of female kin. There is no morphological evidence for interspecific fighting between males in the short-finned pilot whale, such as is known for other species such as the sperm whale.

Herds of pilot whales appear to be highly organised; while foraging or travelling, a herd may be sub-divided into closely knit groups of adult males, juveniles, or females with young. Associations between social behavioural context and vocalisations have been demonstrated. Simple whistles were found to predominate when several pods were spread out during travel. These whistles probably play an important role in maintaining contact and co-ordinating movements between individuals. More complex whistles and pulsed sounds were heard when pilot whales were socialising or in a state of excitement such as during encounters between two pods. During periods of rest, whales were mainly silent.

Short-finned pilot whales are often found associated with other species of cetaceans, including northern right whale dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, and various Stenella spp.


A poorly-known species. The short-finned pilot whale generally uses higher frequency sounds at lower levels than the long-finned; this may be related to their smaller size. Maximum source level is 176 dB re 1 mPa @ 1m (all sounds).

  • PULSIVE : Clicks with energy up to 140 kHz. Pulsed calls are also produced; no analysis yet reported.
  • TONAL : Whistles between 2-12 kHz.
Short-finned pilot whales have been hunted throughout their range, the largest catches being made off Japan, where in the early 1980’s, following a rise in the price of whale meat, some Japanese small-type whaling vessels resumed the hunting of short-finned pilot whales. Several hundred pilot whales are thought to have been killed annually, although reported numbers of takes are unreliable. The species is also hunted throughout the Lesser Antilles, where they are the principal quarry of small-scale hunts for cetaceans. There is no formal system for monitoring or reporting cetacean catches on the islands and official catch records are thought to greatly under-represent the actual catch. Until recently it is estimated that several hundred pilot whales were killed each year. There are concerns for the status of this little known stock.
Elsewhere, short-finned pilot whales are taken as a minor target species in various small cetacean fisheries. They are affected by incidental capture in fishing gear in several areas.

Recent studies have revealed that both long-finned and short-finned pilot whales in the eastern Atlantic, are widely infected with morbillivirus infection. This may be an enzootic infection, and it has been suggested that, through mixing with other odontocetes, pilot whales could act as vectors throughout the Atlantic. It has also been postulated that clinical morbillivirus infection may precipitate mass strandings of highly social odontocetes. Links between deaths of cetaceans through morbillivirus infection and pollutants such as PCB’s (which may suppress the immune system) have also been proposed. In the Mediterranean, striped dolphin populations suffered a major morbillivirus enzootic between 1988 and 1991.


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