More About Pilot Whales
and why they're called "pot-heads"
Pilot whales are not the most famous species of whales, but are, like any species, interesting and unique in their own way. Pilot whales get their name because early ocean explorers saw the whales and believed that there was a "pilot" or lead individual in their groups. They are also called "pothead whale" because the shape of their heads reminded early whalers of black cooper cooking pot.
Pilot whales favorite food is squid, but they also eat fish. They are highly social, and studies suggest that both males and females remain in their mother's pod, an unusual trait among mammals, also found in certain killer whale communities. Pilot whales are notorious for stranding themselves on beaches. No one knows exactly why the pilot whales strand themselves, but several theories have been done this behavior.
There are two types of pilot whales, long-finned and short finned, although it is difficult, if not impossible, for the untrained eye to tell the difference between the two just by observing them at sea.
The long-finned pilot whales get their names for an obvious reason - they have a pair of long, tapered, sickle-dashed shaped pectoral flippers. The species is dark grey or black in color. They like freezing cold water, and are found in sub-polar temperatures zones. This species is highly social, and travels in groups called 'pods' of as many as a hundred whales. The long-finned pilot whales don't discriminate and often are observed travelling with their cousins, the dolphins. Long-finned pilot whales are very active, they can dive for up to 10 minutes to depths of up to 1,000 feet. The males can grow as long as 25 feet, the females 19 feet. The males live up to 45 years, the females 60 years.
Because of its loyalty to the group, long-finned pilot whales are often the victims of mass stranding. 800 pilot whales washed up on the shores of New Zealand over three days in February of this year. It is not uncommon to have a mass stranding of more than a 100.
Short-finned pilot whales are often mixed-up with their relatives the long-finned pilot whales, but there are a couple of important differences. As you might have guessed, their flippers are shorter than those of the long-finned pilot whale, with a gentler curve on the edge. They don't have as many teeth as the long-finned pilot whale, only 14-18 on each jaw. 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. They are just a little shorter than the long-finned whales; males grow to 20 feet, females to 16.
Like the long-finned whales, short-finned pilot whales are very sociable and are rarely seen alone, but their groups aren't quite as big as the long-finned. They are found in groups of 10 to 30, one groups of 100 have been spotted, but that is very rare.
Short-finned pilot whales are found in most waters around the world. Unlike the long-finned, they like warm tropical waters, but usually stay offshore in the deeper waters. They also tend to be found in areas with a high density of squid, their favorite food. The short-finned whales do not strand in the numbers of the long-finned whales.
Are the pilot whales in danger?
the long-finned ones are and guess what is to blame.
Pilot whales are protected and not considered endangered. However, the mass stranding of long-finned pilot whales is a concern. The stranding have been getting worse in recent years, with the largest mass stranding of all-time (800) in New Zealand in February, 2017. Climate change is considered the culprit. The changing climate has significantly changed the ecosystem in the polar region and decreased the squid population, the prime food source for long-finned pilot whales. This has forced the whales to migrate to unfamiliar areas for food. When the whales are forced near shallow and oddly configured beaches in search of food, the risk of a stranding increases 100 fold. Since the long-finned pilot whales travel in large pods, a stranding is tragic in number.
For more information on climate change and its effect on pilot whales, click the button above of the button below.
Jefferson,T.A.M.A. Webster, and R.L Pitman (2008)
Marine Mammals of the World, A Comprehensive Guide to Their Identification. Elsevier. p. 164-166
Shirihai, H. and B. Jarrett (2006). Whales, Dolphins, and other Marine Mammals of the world. Princeton University Press. p. 82-84.
Reeves, R.R., P.A. Folkens, et al. (2002) Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. p.440-443.
Bernard, H.J. and Reilly, S.B. (1999). Pilot Whales. Handbook of Marine Mammals (S.H. Ridgeway and R. Harrison eds.), Volume 6.
Academic Press, London. Pp. 245-279. Olsen, P.A. and Reilly, S.B. (2002)
Pilot Whales. In: Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (W.F. Perrin, B. Wursig, and J.G.M. Thewissen,eds.)
Academic Press, NY. Pp. 898-903
Sources for Picture & Photos
Photo: Howard Goldstein, courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography/ UCSD and R/V Roger Revelle
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/...whales-stranded-new-zealand.../97786344/Feb 11, 2017 - WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Hundreds of pilot whales beached
Photo/Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC