A porpoise-full lesson on cetacean identification

By Amanda Holdman, M.S. student

The rain is beginning to lighten, the heavy winds are starting  to dissipate, and the sun is beginning to shine. Seabirds are starting to fill the air and marine mammals are starting to fill the coastline, making this week a perfect time to learn about some of the small, cryptic cetaceans that consider the Oregon coast home year round.

While I was walking my dog on South Beach in Newport last week, I heard the mother of a small family point and shout that she had just seen an animal that she referred to as a “porpoise/dolphin/small whale.” Upon a second sighting of it, she ruled against the small whale and decided on a dolphin. In reality, she had just sighted a harbor porpoise.

Throughout the duration of my work with Oregon State studying the patterns of harbor porpoise occurrence, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is “What is the difference between a porpoise and a dolphin?”

Differentiating between a dolphin and porpoise is probably the most common identification mistake when it comes to cetaceans. Understandably, there is significant confusion between the two species. The words dolphin and porpoise were, colloquially, used as synonyms until the 1970’s. Unlike lions and tigers that are not only in the same family, but also the same genus, dolphins and porpoises are in different families, having diverged evolutionarily about 15 million years ago! Therefore, dolphins and porpoises are more distinct than lions and tigers. These differences span from head and fin shape, to behavior, group size and vocals.

Physical Differences

Most people are quite certain they are seeing a dolphin mainly because dolphins are more prevalent than porpoises; over 30 species of dolphins are known to exist, but only 6 porpoise species have been identified worldwide. Unless, you’ve seen dolphins and porpoises side by side, nose to fin, it is quite difficult to tell the difference at first glance. In the natural history of cetacean’s course at Oregon State, we are taught that the three main visual differences are in the shape of the teeth, snout, and dorsal fin. But in reality, the first two characteristics aren’t likely to help you spot them from shore. In addition to fin size, the behavior and group size is more likely to cue you in on what animal you are seeing. The picture below does a pretty good job summarizing their physical characteristics. Porpoise have a small triangle fin, while dolphins have more of a curved, pointy fin.

identificationDrawing by Mike Rock, 2009.

Size Differences

The lengths and widths of dolphins vary anywhere from 4 feet to 30 feet. Killer whales, the largest dolphin species and known predator to the harbor porpoise, can weigh up to ten tons, while the harbor porpoise is about five feet and rarely weighs in over 150 pounds.  Porpoises are one of the smallest cetaceans, and because of their small size, they lose body heat to the water more quickly than other cetaceans. Their blunt snout is likely an adaptation to minimize surface area to conserve heat. The small sizes of porpoise require them to eat frequently, rather than depending on fat reserves, making them more of an opportunistic feeder. The need to constantly forage also keeps harbor porpoise from migrating on a large scale. Harbor porpoise are known to move from onshore to offshore waters with changing water temperatures and prey distributions, but not known to make long migration trips.

Social Differences

Porpoises are also less social and talkative than dolphins. Dolphins are typically found in large groups, can be highly acrobatic, and often seen bow-riding. Porpoise, specifically harbor porpoise, are often found singularly or in groups of two to three, and shy away from vessels, making them difficult to observe at sea. While both species have large melon heads for echolocation purposes, dolphins make whistles through there blow holes to communicate with each other underwater. Evolutionary scientists believe porpoises do not whistle due to structural differences in their blowhole. (This is why acoustics is such a great way to learn about the occurrence patterns of harbor porpoise – their echolocation is very distinct!) Porpoise echolocation signals have evolved into a very narrow frequency range – theoretically to protect themselves from killer whale predation by echolocating at a frequency killer whales cannot hear.  Dolphins have evolved other strategies to avoid predators such as large group size and fast speed.

While differentiating between porpoises and dolphins takes a bit of practice, it is important to differentiate between the two species because we manage them differently due to some of their morphological differences. Their different adaptations between the species make them more sensitive to certain stressors. For example, for harbor porpoise, the sound produced from boat noise or renewable energy devices is more likely to impact them than other cetaceans. The sensitivity of the nerve cells in the ears of animals (including humans) generally corresponds to the frequencies that each animal produces. So animals like the harbor porpoise have more nerves in their ears that are tuned to very high frequencies (since they make high frequency sounds). If the nerve cells in the harbor porpoise ears become damaged, their ability to communicate, navigate and find food is seriously affected. In addition to their small home ranges and moderately high position in the food web, the sensitivity of harbor porpoise to ocean noise levels make harbor porpoise an important indicator species for ecosystem health, and an important species to study on the Oregon Coast.

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