Description & Behavior

Pilot whales are actually two species: Globicephala melas (Traill, 1809, long-finned) and Globicephala macrorhynchus (Gray, 1846, short-finned), and are large dolphin species second only to orca (killer whales) in size. Adult males measure up to 6.1 m in length and weigh up to 2,722 kg. Adult females measure up to 4.9 m in length and weigh up to 1,361 kg. They have a round head with a small beak and dolphin-typical up-curved mouthline. The rounded head of males protrudes over the lower jaw. Pilot whales are dark gray to black in color with a lighter colored patch on the ventral surface, and Globicephala macrorhynchus (short-finned) pilot whales may also have a faint patch behind the dorsal fin. The dorsal fin is curved with a long base, and the flippers are also curved—short in Globicephala macrorhynchus and significantly longer in Globicephala melas (long-finned).

There are three subspecies of long-finned pilot whales, Globicephala melas:

  1. long-finned pilot whale (North Atlantic), G. melas melas
  2. long-finned pilot whale (North Pacific), G. melas subsp
  3. long-finned pilot whale (southern hemisphere), G. melas edwardii

Pilot whales are often found in captivity. They have been trained by the US Navy to locate military equipment from deep ocean depths for retrieval. The pilot whale is a gregarious species often found in groups of 20-90, in which there are often small families of females and their calves. Although males are found in these groups as well, they are not necessarily fathers of the calves.

Pilot whales are often associated with mass strandings of several hundred animals. The cause of the mass strandings is unknown, although several theories exist such as sonar problems or parasitic infections that interfere with the central nervous system causing neurological disorders.

World Range & Habitat

In general, pilot whales, Globicephala melas (long-finned) and Globicephala macrorhynchus (short-finned), are found in the northern and southern hemispheres in tropical and temperate waters throughout the world. Short-finned pilot whales tend to live in warmer waters, while long-finned pilot whales are more commonly found in more temperate waters, therefore the two sub-species tend to remain mostly segregated.

Feeding Behavior (Ecology)

Pilot whales, Globicephala, feed on squid and other cephalopods and small fish. These dolphins have only 40-48 teeth compared to 120 in other dolphin species. Adults may consume up to 14 kg of food per day.

Pilot whales have been observed hunting in groups to help concentrate their prey in the center of a pod by using their vocal communications.

Life History

Female pilot whales reach sexual maturity at about 6 years of age or when they grow to about 4 m in length. Males reach sexual maturity at 12 years of age or 4.6 m in length. Females give birth about every 3-5 years, and gestation lasts 12-15 months. Newborn calves measure 1.8 m in length at birth and weigh about 102 kg. Females nurse their calves for about 22 months. Male pilot whales compete for females by fighting and often display aggressive behavior with females, resulting in scarred flesh and occasional infections. Females remain fertile to 35 years old and can lactate as late as 51.

Conservation Status & Comments

Pilot whale population numbers are unknown, however they are not considered endangered. There are an estimated 1 million long-finned pilot whales and approximately 200,000 short-finned pilot whales worldwide. Pilot whales have been hunted for their meat, bone, oil, and for fertilizer, a practice which continues in some areas. Because they easily adapt to captivity, pilot whales are also exhibited in many aquariums and zoos.

References & Further Research

ACS pilot whale Cetacean Fact Sheet – American Cetacean Society
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS)

Research Globicephala macrorhynchus @
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Search for Pilot Whales @
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