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THE TWO SPECIES OF PILOT WHALE

News item submitted by Gap Year Blog
News item dated 7 Jun 2017

When having an encounter with pilot whales on board of whale-watching boats, it is very common to hear confused tourists wondering whether those are whales or dolphins. It is probably because when they hear the word “whale”, the first thing that may pop into their head is the image of a breaching Blue whale. They are not wrong to doubt, as Pilot whales actually belong to the same taxonomic family as the other oceanic dolphin species (Delphinidae). They are all toothed-cetaceas, in comparison to the Blue whale and its closest relatives, which have baleen plates to feed on small prey such as krill.

Having said that, you are now ready to help us getting those tourists out of their confusion!
 
Only two species of pilot whales inhabit the oceans (as far as we know) : short- and long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus and G. melas, respectively), whose names refer to the comparative length of their pectoral fins. The scientific name of their genus is derived from the latin words: “globus” (= balloon) and “kephale” (= head). They both receive the name “pilot” because of the belief that the group is always lead by one individual: the grandmother. Interestingly, this is thought to be the cause of mass strandings, because if the leader gets lost, they all do!

Also, they are sometimes called “pothead” whales. Both names can be also used in Spanish: “ballenas piloto” or “calderones” (caldero = pot).

Despite using different names to call them, there is something we all do every time we see those shiny rounded heads popping out of the water…FALLING IN LOVE!

By Macarena Blanco - Tenerife Research Officer

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