Dolphins and whales, or cetaceans, are incredibly intelligent and complex marine mammals that utilize sophisticated communication. In the wild, each species has unique ranges, social structures, behavior and foraging techniques. Due to the wide-ranging, deep diving, and socially complex nature of these animals, it is impossible to create an artificial environment that suits all of their needs. More information on this is available on our Captivity Facts page. Below are species profiles of some of the dolphin and whale species most often exploited in captivity.
In the wild, bottlenose dolphins inhabit a large part of the world’s oceans from tropical to temperate waters and near-shore to offshore areas. Within the species, there are several different subgroups, such as coastal populations with dolphins smaller in body size, to deep diving offshore populations with more robust dolphins. Each of these populations or subgroups have a unique geographical range. They feed on a large variety of fish and invertebrates, with some populations utilizing complicated, cooperative hunting strategies (i.e. “fish whacking” and “mud ring feeding”) to forage.
Bottlenose dolphins are known to associate with family members (mothers and offspring, years after the calf matures). They have also been found to utilize signature whistles, similar to how we utilize names for each other. Spindle neurons have also been found in the brains of bottlenose dolphins, providing further evidence for mental and emotional complexity!
Orcas, also known as killer whales are the largest of all oceanic dolphins. As a species, they inhabit every ocean in the world, making them the most widely distributed of all cetaceans. Studies indicate that there are at least 10 different orca eco-types with different diets, dialects, geographical range and social structure. Some ecotypes feed on fish, and others feed on mammals, each utilizing coordinated hunting strategies that require sophisticated communication. Although they are one of the ocean’s top predators, wild orcas have never killed a person (unlike orcas in captivity, which have on occasion attacked or even killed humans).
Orcas are one of the cetacean species that have been found to have spindle neurons. Orcas form complex social groups, that tend to be family-oriented. Long term studies on the resident ecotype suggest that they form some of the most stable societies on earth, aside from humans; family groups consist of an older female, her sons and daughters and the daughters’ offspring. These family groups associate with a pod, or several other family groups that may share a common maternal ancestor. In turn, these resident pods socialize with other resident pods that share similar dialects. Additionally, orcas are one of the few species aside from humans that are known to go through menopause.
Belugas are toothed whales, and are not part of the oceanic dolphin family. They are classified under the Monodontidae family, which only consists of two species: belugas and narwhals. These whales are easily recognizable from their white color, lack of a dorsal fin and range of vocal sounds (which earned them the nickname of “canary of the sea”).
Belugas inhabit arctic and subarctic waters, and are not found in antarctic regions. The are highly social, and form groups to hunt, migrate, and socialize with each other. Studies have shown that belugas regularly interact not only with family members, but they also frequently associate with more distantly related and unrelated individuals. Belugas have also been found to have spindle neurons, or specialized brain cells that have been linked to social bonds and processing emotions.
There are two species of pilot whale: long-finned pilot whales and short-finned pilot whales. Both species are very similar in appearance but inhabit different areas. Pilot whales primarily feed on squid, and have been found to dive over 3,000 feet when foraging. In the past, some long-finned pilot whales were captured for the aquarium trade, but today the majority of pilot whales in captivity are short-finned pilot whales.
Pilot whales are long-lived, slow to reproduce, and incredibly social. They tend to stay together in matrilineal family groups consisting of 15-30 individuals. They are believed to form intense bonds with each other, remaining with their closest family members for life. Some researchers believe pilot whale matrilines may have distinct dialects, similar to pod-specific dialects of orcas. Pilot whales are occasionally involved in mass strandings. Although causes for stranding remain unclear, family groups strand together. There are many things we are still learning about the details of pilot whale intelligence, but recent evidence has found that long-finned pilot whales have the highest number of neocortical neurons of any species known to date!
Understanding the intelligence and complexity of these species, as well as how they behave in the wild helps us understand that their natural ranges in the open ocean are where they thrive. It is vital that we continue to spread awareness about dolphins to help end exploitation in captivity, and to help wild dolphin populations stay healthy!
Education is the first step to moving others to take action. Help spread the word about protecting dolphins!
Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of the World, by Mark Carwardine
Guide to Marine Mammals of the World, National Audobon Society
National Geographic: Dolphins Have “Names,” Respond When Called
New Scientist: Whales boast the brain cells that ‘make us human’