Blog: Conservation Conversations with Jamie

Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises Oh, My!

Since March is Dolphin Awareness Month, I thought it would be a great idea to answer a question I get asked hundreds of times a year, “What is the difference between a dolphin, whale, and porpoise?” It’s a good question because it is hard to tell them apart, but the differences between them could highlight some similarities they have with people.  


Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are all closely related animals. You can think of them like cousins or even great-aunts or great-uncles. They are all part of the same family, but live in different places around the world. Like our distant relatives, they look similar, but not identical. These social creatures can live in family groups or communities like just like people. So, let’s get down to the comparin’ and learnin’.


Baleen filters the whale's food source from the water. 

All in the Family

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are all part of the Cetacean family so, while they may not be the same species they have many similarities and it’s often hard to tell them apart. Biologists made the distinction even more difficult when they discovered whales like the Orca are, scientifically speaking, dolphins. The difference between them really comes down to looks. Baleen whales have filters for teeth that help catch and strain small plankton and fish pieces. They are also generally larger than other dolphins and porpoises. So what does that make the whales that have teeth and not baleen?

Well, whales with teeth are scientifically called odontocetes, toothed whales.  Simple, right?  Well, not so much because that fact technically makes dolphins toothed whales. Seriously, all dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins. Got it? Good.


The jaw of a porpoise.

Tooth or Dare

You can tell porpoises and dolphins apart by checking the shape of their teeth, but it isn’t a good idea to go poking around an animal’s mouth. Since a porpoise dental exam is out, I recommend another way tell them apart from dolphins.  Porpoises are smaller than dolphins and don’t have a long mouth. They also have a different shape to their dorsal fin, the triangle shaped fin located on their back. A dolphin’s fin curves toward their tail. Porpoises have a straight triangle shaped dorsal fin.  

All right. Now that you’re aware of how to tell dolphins, whales, and porpoises apart and live in social communities like people, I am going to highlight one other thing we have in common. Dolphin mothers are highly protective of their offspring and like to provide their calves with nutritious meals, just like humans. Unfortunately, it is getting harder for dolphins keep a healthy diet. Humans have a love of plastic: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic hair clips, plastic jewelry, and plastic straws are just a few of the plastic items we use daily.


Paper or Not Plastic

All of these disposable items get thrown out and billions of these items end up in the ocean annually.  Once these items are in the ocean it becomes easy for animals to eat them thinking they are food or eating them with their food. Plastic isn’t in our diet and it isn’t in a dolphins diet, either. It is deadly for all of us.

You can make a difference in the lives of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, by cutting down on your use of plastic. It really can be that easy. Stop using plastic bags for groceries. Grab a cloth, reusable bag. Disposable, plastic water bottles aren’t a great choicer. Grab a refillable sports bottle, save money by using your tap, and protect the ocean at the same time. You can also skip straws, use the reusable versions, or paper kinds like we offer at Brookfield Zoo. Make a commitment to #SkiptheStraw and let everyone on social media you are protecting dolphins and all ocean life.

These simple steps can make a big difference in the lives of dolphins and their closest relatives. Are there any other plastic items you can avoid or tips you’d like to share? Reply to the blog post and let us know how you keep the ocean clean and celebrate Dolphin Awareness Month.  

Posted: 3/17/2017 4:31:14 PM by

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