False killer whale at surface Peter Jucker
False killer whale dorsal fin Peter Jucker
False killer whale in ocean Peter Jucker
Leaping false killer whale Ingrid Visser
False killer whale blow Peter Jucker
Pair of false killer whales WDC/Brian Smith
False killer whale WDC/Brian Smith
False killer whale
Contrary to what its name implies, the false killer whale is not directly related to the orca (killer whale). However, as with the orca, it is also not a whale but a large member of the dolphin family. It is often referred to as 'blackfish' with similar species such as the pygmy killer whale, melon-headed whale, and pilot whale. False killer whales are known for their depredation of fishing longlines and this behaviour has resulted in them being hunted and fired upon by fishermen in several parts of their range, including Japan where they are a target of the annual drive-hunt fisheries.
The false killer whale has a long, slender, uniformly black or dark grey body. Some individuals have a slightly paler head and sides, and sometimes a pale 'W' shape on the chest. It has a narrow, pointed head with a prominent, bulbous melon. It has no beak and in adult males the upper jaw sometimes slightly overhangs the lower one. The false killer whale has narrow, pointed flippers with a distinctive S-shaped elbow, and a large falcate dorsal fin mid-body which may or may not have a rounded or flattened tip. The size of a false killer whale and the narrow pointed head and S-shaped flippers distinguish it from the similar looking but much smaller pygmy killer whale and melon-headed whale.
The false killer whale is the only member of the blackfish group that bow-rides regularly, though other species are known to do so in certain areas. It is a fast moving energetic animal, not shy of boats. It is active and playful, often surfacing with its mouth open revealing its teeth. They are highly social and form strong bonds and are known to breach, lobtail, and porpoise while swimming energetically in pods of 10-60 individuals. Sometimes they will join together with other pods and create superpods of hundreds of animals. They are also one of the more common species known to mass strand and there is one extreme case of a mass stranding of more than 800 individuals. They can be seen in the company of other species including bottlenose dolphins.
Found in tropical to warm temperate waters of the three oceans, the diet of this species consists primarily of fish and cephalopods. Known occasionally to attack smaller dolphins as well as humpback and sperm whales, they generally eat large species of fish, such as mahi-mahi and tuna. This dependence on large fish may create the major threat to this species, as humans remove populations of one fish species after another as part of commercial fisheries. Other threats include accidental entanglement in fisheries gear, live capture for display and also chemical pollution. Overall, this is a relatively little-known species and abundance estimates and by-catch data do not exist for most areas; nor is it really known if this species migrates. The populations seem to be sparse and it is usually found only in deeper seas, which may help to explain why it has been little studied. It is currently designated by the IUCN as Near Threatened.
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