Pilot whales are actually the second-largest dolphin in the world. Only the orca, or killer whale, is larger. Here are eight interesting facts about them, including the reasons why they are known for mass strandings.
- Pilot whales live nearly everywhere in the world, with long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) generally found in colder waters and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) preferring tropical and subtropical waters.
- Males can reach up to 6.7 m (22 ft) in length and can weigh as much as 2300 kg (5070 lb). Females average about 5.7 m (19 ft) and weigh about 1300 kg (2900 lb).
- Usually all black to coal gray, pilot whales have a white or light-gray anchor-shaped or heart-shaped patch on its ventral “belly.”
- Pilot whales prefer to eat squid, but they’ll also consume fish. They are estimated to eat about 70 pounds of food daily.
- Long-finned pilot whales usually travel in matriarchal pods containing on average 7-15 individuals and can range up to hundreds when they gather in groups.
- They are highly social animals, and researchers say that both males and females remain in their mother's pod.
- Pilot whales have one of the longest birth intervals of all cetaceans, calving once every three to five years. Once a female is no longer able to reproduce, she contributes in providing important ecological knowledge of where to find food, etc. as well as helping in the care of the group's juveniles.
- Pilot whales are known for stranding themselves on beaches. The pilot whale received its name due to the belief that the pod follows a single leader. Studies have shown that group strandings tend to be of mostly healthy pilot whales. Scientists are not certain why these mass strandings occur, especially when so many of the beached whales are healthy, but it’s believed that their strong social bonds contributes to these events. Other reasons being studied include navigational errors made when following prey or caused by irregularities in the earth’s magnetic field, or possible parasitic infections resulting in neurological disorders.