The long-finned pilot whale is a large species of dolphin that can be found traveling in the cool waters of the northern and southern hemispheres.
Although these marine mammals are referred to as “pilot whales” they actually belong to the dolphin family.
These dolphins are known to be a very social species and spend large periods of their time living and traveling together.
In fact some observations of these dolphins show that they can be found living together in the same pod throughout the course of their entire lives.
Physical Characteristics and Appearance
When fully grown the male long-finned pilot whale can reach lengths of up to 25 ft. with females growing up to 20 ft. long.
In most cases however the male pilot whales tend to measure closer to around 20 ft. long while the females measure around 15 ft. in length.
In terms of weight a healthy adult male can weigh as much as 7,000 lbs while a female can weigh up to 4,000 lbs., however it is likely that most adults will weigh less than these estimates.
Overall the body of these marine mammals is considered long and stocky for a dolphin.
The head is rounded and bulbous shaped with a short beak and slightly upward curved mouth.
Male dolphins may have a slightly protruding head that can extend up to four inches over the lower jaw.
To assist with moving through the water they have a broad rounded dorsal fin and sickle-shaped flippers.
In terms of color these large dolphins have a dark grey to black skin tone with a light grey to white throat and stomach area.
They may also have grey or white markings around the eyes and/or dorsal fin areas.
Diet and Hunting Methods
When hunting for food these dolphins have been observed holding their breath for up to 10 minutes during long dives.
Unlike other dolphin species the long-finned pilot whale appears to have fewer teeth (around 40 – 48) and uses its teeth solely to grab onto its prey.
During deep dives or night-time hunting echolocation can be used to navigate the ocean and search for food.
Echolocation and vocal communication is also useful for hunting prey in groups and coordinating attacks.
Habitat and Migration
The long-finned pilot whale can be found in both the northern and southern hemispheres in cool temperate waters around or just outside of the subtropical and polar regions.
In the north they can be found primarily in the north Atlantic ocean while in the southern hemisphere their range is more diverse and worldwide.
Given there preference for cool waters these dolphins have been referred to as “anti-tropical”.
And while there may be some overlap between the long-finned pilot whale and the short-finned pilot whale they tend to remain fairly separated and segregated.
Social Structure and Communication
The long-finned pilot whale has been observed traveling in pods of 10 or more and at times pod sizes may grow to over 100 dolphins.
On rare occasions pods may aggregate into 1000 or more dolphins.
These dolphins are described as being a very social and connected species that develops deep bonds and spends large periods of time together.
The long-finned pilot whale may be found living within the same pod throughout the course of its life.
Vocal communication involves using a series of clicks and whistles which can be used both as a form of audible communication and for echolocation.
Visual communication and gestures may include spy-hopping, breaching, lob-tailing and fluking, which can be used to communicate an interest, observe the area or be used as a form of play.
Breeding and Reproduction
The exact gestation period for the long-finned pilot whale is unknown, however it is believed that the gestation period can last anywhere from 12 – 16 months.
The primary mating period is typically between the end of winter and early summer.
Female dolphins are believed to bear a single offspring once every 3 – 5 years on average.
Nursing periods for these dolphins can be considerably longer than other dolphin species with the female dolphins being able to feed her young milk for up to a decade (10 years), although most observations have shown that most young dolphins stop being nursed after 1 1/2 – 3 years.
Sexual maturity is believed to occur between the ages of 7 – 14 with female dolphins maturing earlier than their male counterparts.
The average lifespan for these dolphins is believed to be at least 35 years for males and 60 years for female dolphins.
The long-finned pilot whale has been known to face a number of threats which include:
- Virus/bacteria infections
Long-finned pilot whales have been observed being contaminated with various forms of pollution such as chemical, waste and various materials such as plastic and metals.
Observations of pilot whales with contaminants found in their blubber and stomach have been recorded as potential causes of death or as attributing to their cause of death.
As with other dolphin species bycatch tends to be one of the primary threats the long-finned pilot whale faces.
This may include getting caught in fishing nets, accidental catches intended for small aquatic animals such as fish and getting caught/injured from other fishing gear.
If being harmed from the fishing gear doesn’t lead directly to death than drowning will likely become the primary cause of death as these marine mammals require oxygen to breathe and the fishing gear they become trapped in prevents them from surfacing for air.
While limited to a few regions throughout the world pilot whales may face threats from hunters/poachers who are interested in selling their meat for consumption.
During hunting excavations groups of boats or fishermen may circle around a group of pilot-whales in order to isolate and capture them.
The social nature of pilot-whales makes them an easy target for poachers who are looking to make a successful capture as they are able to seek out groups of pilot whales rather than hunting them one by one.
Part of the appeal of selling/consuming pilot whale meat comes from its rarity and high protein/low-fat contents.
On the other hand those who do consume pilot whale meat may be under an increased health concern due to the meats high mercury and cadmium content.
In many parts of the world hunting cetaceans such as pilot-whales is considered illegal and those caught could face legal charges.
Viruses, bacteria infections and various marine mammal diseases are a common threat that is faced by most living animals including dolphins.
Lung/heart disease, pneumonia, skin disease and cardiovascular infections are some of the primary causes of sickness and death among pilot whales who suffer from diseases and severe infections.
In fact the Morbillivirus is a fairly recent discovery that has been observed causing severe sickness and death among some pilot whales and is known to affect other marine mammals as well.
While the diseases alone can cause illness the combination of a bad diet, previous injuries and pollution can all contribute to making the condition worse.