Porpoise Facts

Information About Porpoises

Learn about porpoises - which include some of the smallest cetacean species.

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Finless Porpoise
kuribo/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Contrary to popular vocabulary, one technically can't use the terms 'dolphin' and 'porpoise' interchangeably. The distinctness of porpoises from dolphins is illustrated by the following statement from Andrew J. Read in The Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals:
"porpoises and dolphins...are as different as horses and cows or dogs and cats."
Porpoises are in the Family Phocoenidae, which contains 7 species. This is a separate family from that of dolphins, which are in the larger family Delphinidae, which contains 36 species. Porpoises are usually smaller than dolphins, and have a blunter snout, whereas dolphins usually have a pronounced "beak."

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Porpoises are toothed whales.

Like dolphins, and some larger whales such as orcas and sperm whales, porpoises are toothed whales - also called odontocetes. Porpoises have flat or spade-shaped, rather than cone-shaped, teeth.

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Harbor Porpoise Image / NOAA
Harbor Porpoise. NOAA

Many porpoise articles state that there are 6 porpoise species, however, the Society for Marine Mammalogy's taxonomy committee states that there are seven porpoise species in the family Phocoenidae (the porpoise family): harbor porpoise (common porpoise), Dall's porpoise, vaquita (Gulf of California harbor porpoise), Burmeister's porpoise, Indo-Pacific finless porpoise, narrow-ridged finless porpoise, and the spectacled porpoise.

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Porpoises look different from other cetaceans.

Compared to many cetacean species, porpoises are small - no porpoise species grows larger than about 8 feet in length. These animals are stocky, and don't have a pointed rostrum. Porpoises also exhibit paedomorphosis in their skulls - this large word means that they retain juvenile characteristics even in an adult. So the skulls of adult porpoises look like juvenile skulls of other cetaceans. As mentioned above, porpoises also have spade-shaped teeth, an easy way (well, if you see one with its mouth open) to tell them apart from dolphins.

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Porpoises have bumps on their back.

All porpoises except for the Dall's porpoise have tubercles (small bumps) on their back, on the front edge of their dorsal fin or dorsal ridge. It is not known what the function of these tubercles is, although some have suggested that they have a function in hydrodynamics.

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Porpoises grow quickly.

Porpoises grow quickly, and reach sexual maturity early. Some can reproduce when they are 3 years old (e.g., the vaquita and harbor porpoise) - you can compare that another toothed whale species, the sperm whale, who may not become sexually mature until its teens, and may not mate until it is at least 20 years old.

In addition to mating early, the reproductive cycle is relatively short, so porpoises may calve annually. So, it is possible for a female to be pregnant and lactating (nursing a calf) at the same time.

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Unlike dolphins, porpoises don't usually gather in large groups.

Porpoises don't seem to gather in large groups like dolphins - they tend to live individually or in small, unstable groups. They also don't strand in large groups like other toothed whales.

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Harbor porpoises are 'sperm competitors.'

Harbor Porpoises, Gulf of Maine / Jennifer Kennedy, Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation
Harbor Porpoises, Gulf of Maine. © Jennifer Kennedy, Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation

This might go in the "little-known facts about porpoises" category. To be reproductively secure, harbor porpoises need to mate with multiple females during the mating season. To do this successfully (i.e., produce a calf), they need lots of sperm. And to have lots of sperm, they need big testes. The testes of a male harbor porpoise may weigh 4-6% of the porpoise's body weight during the mating season. A male harbor porpoise's testes usually weigh about .5 pound, but may weigh more than 1.5 pounds during the mating season.

This use of lots of sperm - rather than physical competition between males for females - is known as sperm competition.

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The vaquita is the smallest porpoise.

The vaquita is a small cetacean that lives only in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Vaquitas grow to almost 5 feet in length and about 110 pounds in weight, making them the smallest porpoise. They are also one of the scarcest - there are thought to be only about 245 vaquitas left, with populations declining by possibly as much as 15% per year.

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The Dall's porpoise is one of the fastest marine mammals.

Dall's Porpoise / GregTheBusker, Flickr
Dall's Porpoise. GregTheBusker, Flickr
Dall's porpoises swim so quickly that they produce a "rooster tail" as they move. They can grow up to about 8 feet in length and 480 pounds in weight. They can swim at speeds over 30 miles per hour, making them one of the fastest cetacean species, and the fastest porpoise.