In this inaugural episode, Lauren answers the question everybody’s been asking. If it’s not a dolphin, what exactly is a porpoise? She is joined by marine zoologist Dr. Anna Hall, who helps her uncover that mystery.
Porpoises are somewhat invisible. Few people know what they even are, and even fewer have ever seen one. In this short inaugural episode, we will look at cetaceans, the larger group of animals that is made up of whales, porpoises and dolphins, look at their differences and explain what makes porpoises unique.
References & Further Reading
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Host & Executive Producer: Lauren Hartling
Guest: Dr. Anna Hall (presentation at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum)
Associate Producer: Derek Jang
Audio Engineering & Editing: Marcus Wernicke
Theme Song: Black Rhomb - River of Time (under license)
Additional Music: RimsyMusic - Watching the Stars (under license)
Ocean waves recorded by Mike Koenig (under Attribution 3.0 license)
Dolphin echolocation and communication sounds under license from Soundboard.com
Other effects under license from soundsnap, Ojoo Limited
Cover Artwork: Julius Csotonyi
Lauren Hartling: Hello and welcome to the very first episode of Not a Dolphin. It’s a multipurpose podcast looking at porpoises specifically, but we also want to focus on a lot of other things that are happening in the ocean. So this is going to give us a chance to kind of deep dive – haha puns to come – about porpoises and other such amazing creatures and things happening in the ocean. My name is Lauren Hartling. I am a science communicator. I’ve worked as an interpreter for over 15 years at a couple of different zoological facilities. Now…
Lauren Hartling: Hello and welcome to the very first episode of Not a Dolphin. It’s a multipurpose podcast looking at porpoises specifically, but we also want to focus on a lot of other things that are happening in the ocean. So this is going to give us a chance to kind of deep dive – haha puns to come – about porpoises and other such amazing creatures and things happening in the ocean.
My name is Lauren Hartling. I am a science communicator. I’ve worked as an interpreter for over 15 years at a couple of different zoological facilities. Now I have a background in animal biology, and I have a passion for nature, for wildlife, for conservation. Uh, and I have a lot of experience from a very young age, interacting with all kinds of creatures.
Uh, in fact, I even have memories of my dad buying me a little dip net and he put an even finer mesh in the net so I could catch really tiny things. I got really good at catching things like leeches and caddisflies and all sorts of fish. Um, so I really do have a passion of nature, but. There’s a huge amount of nerdiness there as well, so hopefully you join me in that arena.
So because we’re going to be talking about porpoises for our very first episode, I thought, let’s focus on giving people information so that they can follow along a lot more easily. So let’s kind of all get on the same place. , let’s define a bunch of things.
The first definition is I want to supply you with are about what a mammal is and what a porpoise is. But in order to do that, I’m actually gonna give you a chance to hear from someone else. This is the voice of Dr. Anna Hall. She’s the president of the Porpoise Conservation Society. She is a marine zoologist and has been studying harbour and Dall’s porpoises for more than 20 years.
So I’ll get her to explain what these things are.
Anna Hall: What is a porpoise? Well, a porpoise is an aquatic mammal. And just to take you back to high school science, let’s review. Mammals are warm- blooded. They bear live young, they breathe air. They produce milk and they have hair. And this is usually a point, uh, particularly when I, I speak to some groups and say, well, how could they, they don’t have hair.
They’ve got smooth skin. I’ve seen them at the aquarium, or I was on a whale watching boat and I saw them, but they do. Porpoises are mammals. All mammals have hair. And as with the other whales and dolphins, when these animals are born, they have a few little whiskers just around their snout. And if you imagine yourself as a baby porpoise or a baby whale or a baby dolphin, perhaps it’s a very dark night, but you’re hungry.
You have to feed. You can’t see your mom because there’s no lights out there. They have these little whiskers and they’re sensory, just like a cat can find its way around in the dark. It’s to help these animals find where on their mom they’re going to get that valuable milk that will help nourish their systems.
By the time they have grown up, they have worn off, but very, very young animals all have little whiskers around their mouths on their snout.
Porpoise are much smaller than dolphins. In fact, if you’re a porpoise, you would be very large at two meters in length. Generally, they are smaller than that. They do not have that curved or hooked falcate dorsal fin. Porpoises have a triangular shaped dorsal fin. The exception of course, is the finless porpoise who has no fin at all.
Lauren Hartling: Falcate, that’s a fun word. So falcate is a way of defining a sickle shaped dorsal fin or it’s just, it’s curved. So if you picture a bottlenose dolphin in your head, you can imagine how the fin kind of curves slightly to the back. It’s kind of swooping in shape. Falcate is the word that scientifically would be used to describe that shape fin. And you can also find a fin like that on fish as well.
Anna Hall: They do not have the cone-shaped teeth. They’ve got little flattened, very small teeth, and in fact, they look like a little spade. Dolphins will bite their prey into pieces. Porpoises are far too refined for that. They will simply just hold their prey ever so gently with their teeth and then manipulate it with their tongue and then using a negative pressure, a suction in their mouth created by their tongue, they will move their tongue very quickly, and it sucks that prey all the way down into their stomach.
Lauren Hartling: But the shape of the face of a dolphin, the rostrum, uh, is much more pointy. If you’re looking at a porpoise, it’s a lot shorter. It’s a lot to kind of pug-like. It’s a little bit shorter, a little bit more squishy. They do still technically have a rostrum, but it’s just not as defined as a dolphin’s. rostrum.
So when it comes to seeing these animals in the ocean, that’s really what any observer or researcher is going to be looking for, but sometimes it’s actually really hard to see those dorsal fins as Dr. Anna Hall can share.
Anna Hall: Those dorsal fins are only about six inches in height. They’re very, very small. So look at the sea surface. There is no disruption at the surface. These are actively feeding porpoise. Active . At the surface, it doesn’t look terribly exciting. We can only observe porpoise in the absolute best conditions.
Lauren Hartling: And now as you’re looking at pictures of these animals online, cause let’s be honest, you’re going to start googling pictures and think, Oh my gosh, these things are so cute. You will look for those identifying features. Now of all of the porpoises on our planet, there are only seven species. In a bigger picture when I mentioned cetaceans, there’s over 90 different species of cetaceans.
Cetacean is a more common name for a taxonomic group Cetacea which includes all of the whales. So cetaceans includes whales that have teeth and whales that have baleen. The toothed whales are called odontocetes, and the baleen whales are called mystecetes. The mysticetes tend to be massive, they’re huge. Those include the humpback whale, blue whales fin whales, um, the blue whale being, the largest animal to have ever existed on our planet.
And the tooth whales includes things like sperm whales and the beaked whales. When it comes to cetaceans, there’s over 90 species of cetacean on our planet. They have the ability to use in many of their cases echolocation. The echolocation is specific to toothed whales. We don’t entirely understand how baleen whales navigate.
There’s a lot of research into this, but we’re hoping to find out more soon. But in the case of toothed whales, this does include the porpoises. They can use echolocation, they can send sound out, they can listen for the echoes that come back, and they’re basically using sound to navigate under water, especially when you consider they’re living in a place that can be really dark if they’re down deep. Uh, they can’t rely on their eyesight that they’re using sound to navigate.
Baleen whales- baleen specifically refers to baleen. That’s the plates that are in their mouth. And when I say plates, those are the hanging down fibery things that you might have seen. If you’ve ever seen a whale, a humpback whale coming up when it’s bubble net feeding, which is a really cool behavior to see, but you’re seeing the baleen.
It’s growing from the top of the mouth and it has little hairlike structures that face towards the tongue. Um, baleen is made of the same stuff as our hair and fingernails. It’s made of keratin. And the plates are hundreds of plates in their mouth, but what they do is they collect a mouth full of water, ideally, that is full of food.
So if you see a group of krill, little shrimpies that are swimming at the surface, the whales kind of track these down. They open their mouth up and they take a big mouthful and they push the water out of their mouth with her tongue. All the little krill get caught in the hairs of their baleen. They lick it off, swallow it, and that is a giant mouthful of awesomeness for these animals to power their bodies.
So baleen whales have baleen plates of fibers hanging from the top of their mouth. Toothed whales have teeth like the dolphins and porpoises, and they use that to grab and hold and swallow their prey. They don’t chew their prey. Toothed whales just use their teeth to grab and hold, um, and in many cases, swallow large pieces of prey.
So why are we doing a podcast about porpoise? Well, porpoise are one of these animals that people may have heard of, may don’t realize are out in the ocean. And we really wanted to kind of give them the attention they deserve because we often do hear about things like humpback whales and killer whales, the blue whale, obviously super cool animal, and even things like sea otters. They are awesome, adorable, fuzzy, but porpoises don’t often get as much attention. And part of that comes from the fact that they are really hard to study.
So worldwide, there are only seven species of porpoises. So we’re going to take a few minutes to break down who’s, who, where they can be found. And I’m going to go over this a little bit, uh, briefly, only because I want to save lots of information for upcoming episodes and we’re going to delve into each of these species in more detail in the future.
Um, so we’re just going to quickly go over those seven species .
We’re going to start with Harbor porpoise. They’re typically a Northern hemisphere species found fairly close to shore around, um, parts of Alaska, North America, looking at British Columbia there.
You’re going to find them, uh, over from the Eastern side of Canada, Elvin into Europe and a bit around Japan. Looking at Dall’s porpoises, their range is a bit different. You’re specifically looking for them to be in the Pacific Ocean. Um, so between North America and over to Russia, you’re going to find Dall’s porpoises in that more northern range.
Spectacled porpoise. Very cute. I highly encourage you check them out. They are a southern hemisphere species, specifically just above the Antarctic and a little bit along the coast of South America.
Burmeister’s porpoise, also found around South America. Very, very coastal. Only found around South America.
You also have two species of Finless porpoise. Both are going to be found over in Asia, around Japan and Korea.
For the last porpoise I wanted to point out, it’s the vaquita and I’m having a hard time, uh, verbally describing where this is. You’re probably gonna end up googling this, but if you imagine in California, picture Los Angeles or San Diego, and you go south of there thinking of a map in your head. There’s a peninsula of land, and then there’s ocean in between uh, that ocean is the Gulf of California and that is the Baja peninsula, and at the very top of that water body, at the very top of the Gulf of California is where you would find vaquita. So they are currently estimated of having a population less than 30 individuals. It’s the most endangered species of marine mammal on our planet. Uh, we don’t know a lot about them.
They’re disappearing at a really, really quick rate, and we’re going to have an entire episode on vaquita specifically. I recommend looking them up, but they have a very tiny, tiny range, and that’s the only place in the world that they can be found.
So there you have it. Our brief inaugural episode of Not a Dolphin. We are going to be doing things on “porpoise” ─ haha, all these puns for you.
So I do encourage you to keep an ear out for upcoming episodes as we will be diving deeply into specific topics on porpoise, topics on the ocean and I want to make this as engaging and interactive as possible.
So if you have any questions that you want answered, if there’s anything you want to know more about, feel free to reach out to us, let us know, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer those questions for you and honestly get in touch with people that definitely know more than me. The best way for you to get your questions to me is email me, Lauren at porpoise.org to get more information on how to contact me or our organization that is dedicated to researching porpoises. You can also check out the website, porpoise.org and, uh, if you want to adopt a porpoise to share it with your loved ones because porpoises are great. You can check that out there as well.
I’ll also direct you if you want some information specifically about porpoises. A really great website that you can go to is porpoise.org. This is the Porpoise Conservation Society and it’s a nonprofit organization dedicated to learning more about porpoises, researching them, and contributing to scientific research globally.
I also want to give a shout out to Marcus for helping me do some editing on this inaugural episode. Thank you so much, Marcus. Uh, you’re patience has been very, very appreciated. So thank you for your help with this.
And once again, my name is Lauren. I hope you’ve had a good time joining us and go fluke and learn something. There’s so much out there that you can explore. Get into it, get on it, have a great day.