The short finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) is one of the two species of pilot whale. They are a cetacean in the genus Globicephala, which it shares with the long-finned pilot whale. Short-finned pilot whales are part of the oceanic dolphin family Delphinidae although their behaviour is closer to that of the larger whales. They belong to the order Artiodactyla. The name “pilot whale” originated with an early theory that pods were “piloted” by a leader.
Short-finned pilot whales are often confused with their relatives the long-finned pilot whales, however, there are various differences. Their flippers are shorter than those of the long-finned pilot whale, with a gentler curve on the edge. They have fewer teeth than long-finned pilot whales, with 14 to 18 on each jaw.
The short finned pilot whale has a worldwide distribution, with a global population of about 700,000. There may be 3 or 4 distinct populations — two in the Pacific, and one in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Despite the fact that it is still whaled today, it is a protected species. It is currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List.
Short Finned Pilot Whale Characteristics
Short-finned pilot whales are black or dark grey with a grey or white cape. They have grey or almost white patches on their bellies and throats and a grey or white stripe which goes diagonally upwards from behind each eye. Adult short-finned pilot whales measure around 3.5 to 6.5 metres in length and weigh between 1 and 4 tonnes. Adult males are usually larger and heavier than females.
Short finned pilot whales heads are bulbous and this can become more defined in older males. Their dorsal fins vary in shape depending on how old the whale is and whether it is male or female. Short finned pilot whales have flukes with sharply pointed tips, a distinct notch in the middle and concave edges. They tend to be quite slender when they are young, becoming more stocky as they get older. They have no prominent beak.
Long-finned and short finned pilot whales are often hard to tell apart. As their name suggests, short finned pilot whale flippers are shorter than those of the long-finned pilot whale, measuring about 1/6th of the body length. Short-finned pilot whales also have fewer teeth – 7 to 9 in each row. Both species exhibit sexual dimorphism, although long-finned pilot whales are generally larger than short-finned pilot whales.
Short Finned Pilot Whale Lifespan
The short-finned pilot whale is around 45 years for males and 60 years for females. This is the same as long-finned pilot whales.
Short-Finned Pilot Whale Diet
Short-finned pilot whales feed mainly on fish, such as mackerel, hake, herring and cod, and also squid and octopus. They have very few teeth so they are adapted for sucking rather than grasping their prey.
Short-finned pilot whales mostly feed at night in deep water using echolocation to find prey. They have been recorded swimming very quickly at depths, sprinting after large squid and have been aptly nicknamed ‘cheetahs of the deep sea’. They can dive to depths up to 1000m for 10 to 16 minutes at a time to catch their prey.
Short Finned Pilot Whale Behavior
Short finned pilot whales are very sociable animals and for this reason they are rarely seen alone and are found in resident populations of groups of 10 to 30, though some pods are as large as 60. These pods are extended family pods which are tight-knit and stable, and the males and females within each pod are related to one another and mating takes place outside the pod. They are long-lived whales, with females living longer than males and even going through menopause. Once older females stop having babies themselves, they help other mothers in their pod care for their babies.
Pilot whales are strongly bonded to each other and do everything together; resting, hunting, socialising, playing and travelling as a unified pod. The pods also form hierarchical associations that remain stable for generations, and are primarily thought to be matrilineal, i.e. lead by an elder female relative, similar to those of resident killer whales.
These whales are known to be very playful, engaging in playful behaviour at the surface, such as lobtailing (slapping their flukes on the water surface) and spy-hopping (poking their heads above the surface). Sometimes they may float motionless at the surface. They are also sometimes seen logging and will allow boats to get quite close.
Short-finned pilot whales are often seen in the company of common and bottle nose dolphins. They can also be approached by humans and will even allow humans to swim next to them.
When hunting, the pilot whale’s tail fluke rises out of the water before a deep dive. When coming to the surface to breath, adults tend to show only the top of their head, whereas calves will throw their entire head out of the water. Adults occasionally porpoise (lift most of the body out of the water) when swimming particularly quickly. Short-finned pilot whales rarely breach.
Short Finned Pilot Whale Reproduction
Female short-finned pilot whales mature at about 7 to 12 years of age and give birth every 5 to 8 years. They average around 4 to 5 calves in a lifetime and will usually stop reproducing at around 40 years old.
The gestation period for a short-finned whale is around 15 months. Females will nurse her calves for at least 2 years. The last calf born to a mother may be nursed for as long as 15 years.
When they are born short-finned pilot whales are about 1.4 – 1.9 metres long. At birth, short-finned pilot whales weigh about 60 kilograms (135 pounds).
Males are polygynous, meaning they will mate with multiple females at one time and throughout their lives. Females mature much earlier than males, and males don’t reach sexual maturity until they are around 13 to 16 years old.
Short-Finned Pilot Whale Location and Habitat
Short-finned pilot whales are found globally in tropical and temperate oceans, including the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. They mostly prefer deeper waters where most squid live, but can be found at varying distances from shore. They are generally nomadic and follow the movements of their prey. However, resident pilot whales have been recorded in places such as Hawaii and California.
The short and long finned pilot whales have limited overlap worldwide; long-finned pilot whales are found in cooler temperate waters, while the distribution of short-finned pilot whales is largely tropical and subtropical.
Short-Finned Pilot Whale Conservation Status
It is thought that the population of the short-finned whale is at around 700,000 individuals, although it could be a lot more than this, as large parts of the species’ range have not been surveyed.
The short finned pilot whale was listed on the IUCN Red List as Data Deficient in 2008, and remains data-poor in much of its range, especially in the Southern Hemisphere and in large parts of the tropical and warm temperate North Atlantic Ocean. However, it is not thought that these whales are particularly threatened or endangered.
In the United States, short-finned pilot whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The main threats to these animals include hunting, captivity and climate change.
Short finned pilot whales have been hunted for many centuries, particularly by Japanese whalers. Today, pilot whales are hunted in a few areas of Japan, mainly along the central Pacific coast, as well as the Lesser Antilles (e.g., St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica, Martinique), where whales are commercially hunted and the meat is available for human consumption. Unfortunately, their strong social bonds and herding instincts make them prime candidates for so-called drive fisheries, where whales are herded towards shore by boats and then killed in shallow waters.
They are also susceptible to entanglement with fishing gear. If they are entangled in this gear and unable to move, the whale may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, which can cause harm or even death.
Short finned pilot whales have been kept in captivity in various marine parks off southern California, Hawaii and Japan. Pilot whales have historically had low survival rates in captivity, with less than half surviving past 24 months.
Climate change is likely to affect pilot whales at it will have a direct effect on prey distribution and abundance, breeding habits and navigation.
Short Finned Pilot Whale Predators
There are no documented cases of natural predation on pilot whales, although the species could occasionally be targeted by killer whales or large sharks.
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