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The whale family is one of Nature’s most intelligent groups of species

Posted in Animals, Nature, Sea, Wildlife on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about the whale family originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 387 published on 14 June 1969.

White-sided dolphin, picture, image, illustration

White-sided dolphin

By tradition, most members of the whale family (together with the Sturgeon) are called “Royal Fish” and belong to the Crown. This means that when, for instance, a whale is found stranded on a beach, it usually has to be reported to the British Museum which uses the information to plot the movements of the different species.

Of course whales are not fish – they are mammals of the sea. Many people think of them as rare animals, and this is true of those which have been hunted almost to extinction. Fortunately, whaling is now controlled in most countries and the threatened species are likely to survive, at least for a few more generations.

Many species of whales and dolphins (which are really small whales) are not rare, but unless you spend a great deal of time at sea or live near the coast, you are unlikely to see them.

Dolphins have become better known to the general public since the discovery was made in Florida that they could be kept in captivity. The high intelligence of the whale family has now been proved beyond doubt by American scientists.

The Lesser Rorqual (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is small when compared to many whales, rarely growing to more than 30 ft. long. These whales are not very common in northern waters, although they do sometimes turn up in unusual places. Only a few years ago one swam up the River Thames as far as Kew Bridge.

Like other baleen whales, this species feeds almost entirely on near-microscopic animals known as krill.

A few whales of the Ziphius cavirostris species, known as Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, have been found on British beaches, but generally this is a semi-tropical species which prefers warm waters. It grows to about 25 ft.

The Bottle-nosed Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) is a strange-looking animal with a bulging forehead (often described as a melon). It grows up to 30 ft. long.

The Blackfish or Pilot Whale (Globicephala melaena) can grow to more than 20 ft. long. It also has a melon-shaped forehead but a shorter “beak” than the Bottle-nosed Whale. It is common along the Scottish coasts.

Growing up to 30 ft. long, the Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) is also called the Grampus. This is an attractive black and white animal with a distinctive high dorsal fin. A ferocious beast, it kills seals and sea birds for food – and has even been known to tip up boats in order to eat the occupants!

The Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis) is one of the Rorqual group of whales. It grows to about 50 or 60 ft. long and is rarely found round British coasts.

The small White-beaked Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) grows to 10 ft. long. It lives in schools of up to 100 animals.

The Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) generally grows to about 6 ft. long. It is probably the second most common of all the whales around our coasts.

The most common member of the whale family found in British waters is undoubtedly its smallest member – the Porpoise (Phocaena phocaena). Shoals of about fifty of these little animals are often seen off shore by anglers and swimmers.

Porpoises tend to be less tolerant of human beings than many other species, and are rarely kept in captivity.

The Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) which grows to about 12 ft. long, has proved itself to be not only highly intelligent, but also the clown of the sea. It seems to enjoy amusing crowds of onlookers.

Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus) is only a little larger than the Bottle-nosed Dolphin, but it does not have the long snout.

A really big whale, growing to 80 ft. long or more, is the Fin Whale or Common Rorqual (Balaenoptera physalus). This is found almost entirely throughout the seas of the world.

The White-sided Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus) is considered fairly common in northern British waters. These animals, which are among the most attractive members of the whale family move around in large shoals hunting for fish.

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