Pacific White-sided Dolphins
Pacific White-sided Dolphins
Scientific classification
Template:Taxobox regnum entryTemplate:Taxobox phylum entry

See article below.

Dolphins are aquatic mammals related to whales and porpoises. The name is from Ancient Greek δελφίς delphis meaning "with a womb", viz. "a 'fish' with a womb".

The word is used in a few different ways. It can mean:

  1. Any member of the family Delphinidae (oceanic dolphins),
  2. Any member of the families Delphinidae and Platanistoidea (oceanic and river dolphins),
  3. Any member of the suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales; these include the above families and some others),
  4. Used casually as a synonym for Bottlenose Dolphin, the most common and familiar species of dolphin.

In this article, the second definition is used.

Porpoises (suborder Odontoceti, family Phocoenidae) are thus not dolphins in our sense. Orcas and some related species belong to the Delphinidae family and therefore qualify as dolphins, even though they are called whales in common language.

There are almost 40 species of dolphin in 17 genera. They vary in size from 1.2 m (4 ft) and 40 kg (88 lb) (Maui's Dolphin), up to 9.5 m (30 ft) and 10 tonnes (the Orca). Most species weigh about 50 to 200 kg (110 to 440 lb). They are found worldwide, mostly in the shallower seas of the continental shelves, and all are carnivores, mostly eating fish and squid.

The family Delphinidae is the largest in the Cetacea, and relatively recent: dolphins evolved about 10 million years ago, during the Miocene.

Taxonomy Edit

Six animals in the family Delphinidae are commonly called "whales" but are strictly speaking dolphins. They are sometimes called "blackfish":

Hybrid dolphinsEdit

In 1933, three strange dolphins were beached off the Irish coast; these appeared to be hybrids between Risso's Dolphin and the Bottlenose Dolphin. This mating has since been repeated in captivity and a hybrid calf was born. In captivity, a Bottlenose Dolphin and a Rough-Toothed Dolphin produced hybrid offspring. In the wild, Spinner Dolphins have sometimes hybridised with Spotted Dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins. In the wild, bands of males of one dolphin species have been observed to mate with lone female Spinners. Blue Whales, Fin Whales, and Humpback Whales all hybridize in the wild. Dall's Porpoises and Harbour Porpoises have hybridized in the wild. There has also been a reported hybrid between a beluga and a narwhal. See also wolphin.

Evolution and anatomy of dolphins Edit

Dolphins, along with whales and porpoises, are descendants of land-living mammals, most likely of the Artiodactyl order. Modern dolphin skeletons have two small rod-shaped pelvic bones thought to be left-over hind legs. They entered the water roughly 50 million years ago. See evolution of cetaceans for the details.

Dolphins have a fusiform body, adapted for fast swimming. The head contains the melon, a round organ used for echolocation. In many species, the jaws are elongated, forming a distinct beak; for some species like the Bottlenose, there is a curved mouth that looks like a fixed smile. Teeth can be very numerous (up to 250) in several species. The dolphin brain is large and has a highly structured cortex, which often is referred to in discussions about their high intelligence.

The basic coloration patterns are shades of gray with a light underside and a distinct dark cape on the back. It is often combined with lines and patches of different hue and contrast. See individual species articles for details.

Dolphin behaviourEdit


Dolphins are widely believed to be amongst the most intelligent of all animals. A typical statement would be that dolphins are roughly as intelligent as a two-year-old human. However, experts in comparative psychology or animal cognition would be reluctant to make any such estimate, as quantitative comparisons of intelligence between species are notoriously difficult to make in principle. Straightforward comparisons of species' relative intelligence are complicated by differences in sensory apparatus, response modes, and nature of cognition; furthermore, the difficulty and expense of doing experimental work with a large marine animal mean that even such tests as can meaningfully be done have still not been done, or have been carried out with inadequate sample size and methodology. See the Dolphin intelligence article for more details.

Dolphins often leap above the water surface, sometimes performing acrobatic figures (e.g. the spinner dolphin). This and other behavior is interpreted as playing. They are capable of diving up to 260 m deep and 15 min long, but rarely stay under water longer than a few minutes. Frequently dolphins will accompany boats, riding the bow waves.

They are also famous for their willingness to occasionally approach humans and playfully interact with them in the water. In return, in some cultures like in Ancient Greece they were treated with welcome; a ship spotting dolphins riding in their wake was considered a good omen for a smooth voyage. There have been reports of dolphins protecting swimmers against sharks by swimming circles around the swimmers.

Dolphins are social animals, living in pods (also called "schools") of up to a dozen animals. In places with a high abundance of food, schools can join temporarily, forming an aggregation called a superpod; such groupings may exceed 1000 dolphins. The individuals communicate using a variety of clicks, whistles, and other vocalizations. They also use ultrasonic sounds for echolocation.

File:Airborne dolphin.jpg

Membership in schools is not rigid; interchange is common. However, the animals can establish strong bonds between each other. This leads to them staying with injured or ill fellows for support.

Because of their high capacity for learning, humans have employed dolphins for any number of purposes. Dolphins trained to perform in front of an audience have become a favorite attraction in dolphinaria, for example SeaWorld. Dolphin/Human interaction is also employed in a curative sense at places where dolphins work with autistic or otherwise disabled children. The military has employed dolphins for various purposes from finding mines to rescuing lost or trapped persons. Such military dolphins, however, drew scrutiny during the Vietnam War when rumours circulated that dolphins were being trained to kill Vietnamese Skin Divers.

In May 2005, researchers in Australia discovered a cultural aspect of dolphin behaviour: Some dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) teach their offspring to use a tool. The animals break off sponges and put them onto their mouths thus protecting the delicate body part during their hunt for fish on the seabed. Other than with primate simians, the knowledge to use a tool is mostly handed over only from mothers to daughters. The technology to use sponges as mouth protection is not genetically inherited but a taught cultural behaviour.

Dolphins do not have acute eyesight nor do they appear to have a good sense of smell, although their sense of hearing is far above our own.

Compare also: whale behavior


Dolphins are predators, chasing their prey at high speed. The dentition is adapted to the animals they hunt: Species with long beaks and many teeth forage on fish, whereas short beaks and lesser tooth count are linked to catching squid. Some dolphins may take crustaceans. Usually, the prey is swallowed whole. The bigger species, especially the orca, are capable of eating marine mammals, even large whales. There are no known reports of cannibalism amongst dolphins.

Individual species may employ a number of methods of hunting:

  • Herding - where a superpod will control a school of fish while individual members take turns ploughing through the herd, feeding.
  • Corralling - where fish are chased to shallow water where they are more easily captured.
  • Fish Wacking - where the dolphin uses its fluke to strike the fish, stunning it and sometimes sending it clear out of the water.
  • Stunning - using the echolocation melon, very loud clicks are directed at prey, stunning them.
  • Foraging - A recent study reported that wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) in Western Australia use sponges to forage in the sea bed for food.[1]

Dolphin loreEdit

  • The popular television show Flipper, created by Ivan Tors, portrayed a dolphin in a friendly relationship with two boys, Sandy and Bud; a kind of sea going Lassie, Flipper understood English unusually well and was a marked hero: "Go tell Dad we're in trouble, Flipper! Hurry!" The show's theme song contains the lyric no one you see / is smarter than he.
  • After study at the Dolphins Plus research center in Key Largo, Florida, fantasy author Ken Grimwood wrote dolphins into his 1995 novel Into the Deep, including entire chapters written from the viewpoint of his dolphin characters.
  • A book called 'The Music of Dolphins' was written by Karen Hesse, about a girl who had lived with dolphins since the age of four.
  • The Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Devil Fish, features Mike and the 'Bots mocking dolphins. While doing so, the SOL gets blasted by a ship that turns out to be piloted by dolphins. Mike and the 'Bots then quickly apoligize.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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