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All Things Dolphin.
Information and pictures on Dolphins.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.

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Dolphins are aquatic mammals that are closely related to whales and porpoises. There are almost forty species of dolphin in seventeen genera. They vary in size from 1.2 meters (4 ft) and 40 kilograms (88 lb) (Maui's Dolphin), up to 9.5 m (30 ft) and ten tons (the Orca or Killer Whale). They are found worldwide, mostly in the shallower seas of the continental shelves, and are carnivores, mostly eating fish and squid. The family Delphinidae is the largest in the Cetacea, and relatively recent: dolphins evolved about ten million years ago, during the Miocene. Dolphins are considered to be amongst the most intelligent of animals and their often friendly appearance and seemingly playful attitude have made them popular in human culture.

Origin of the name
The name is originally from Ancient Greek δελφίς (delphís; "dolphin"), which was related to the Greek δελφυς (delphys; "womb"). The animal's name can therefore be interpreted as meaning "a 'fish' with a womb". The name was transmitted via the Latin delphinus, Middle Latin dolfinus and the Old French daulphin, which reintroduced the ph into the word.

The word is used in a few different ways. It can mean: Dolphin

  • Any member of the family Delphinidae (oceanic dolphins),
  • Any member of the families Delphinidae and Platanistoidea (oceanic and river dolphins),
  • Any member of the suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales; these include the above families and some others),
  • Used casually as a synonym for Bottlenose Dolphin, the most common and familiar species of dolphin.

In this article, the second definition is used. Porpoises (suborder Odontoceti, family Phocoenidae) are thus not dolphins in this sense. Orcas and some closely related species belong to the Delphinidae family and therefore qualify as dolphins, even though they are called whales in common language. A group of dolphins can be called a "school" or a "pod".

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom:     Animalia
  • Phylum:        Chordata
  • Class:          Mammalia
  • Order:          Cetacea
  • Suborder:    Odontoceti
  • Family:        Delphinidae and Platanistoidea - Gray, 1821

Taxonomy

  • Suborder Odontoceti, toothed whales
    • Family Delphinidae, oceanic dolphins
      • Genus Delphinus
        • Long-Beaked Common Dolphin, Delphinus capensis
        • Short-Beaked Common Dolphin, Delphinus delphis
      • Genus Tursiops
        • Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops truncatus
        • Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops aduncus
      • Genus Lissodelphis
        • Northern Rightwhale Dolphin, Lissodelphis borealis
        • Southern Rightwhale Dolphin, Lissiodelphis peronii
      • Genus Sotalia
        • Tucuxi, Sotalia fluviatilis
      • Genus Sousa
        • Indo-Pacific Hump-backed Dolphin, Sousa chinensis
          • Chinese White Dolphin (the Chinese variant), Sousa chinensis chinensis
        • Atlantic Humpbacked Dolphin, Sousa teuszii
      • Genus Stenella
        • Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Stenella frontalis
        • Clymene Dolphin, Stenella clymene
        • Pantropical Spotted Dolphin, Stenella attenuata
        • Spinner Dolphin, Stenella longirostris
        • Striped Dolphin, Stenella coeruleoalba
      • Genus Steno
        • Rough-Toothed Dolphin, Steno bredanensis
      • Genus Cephalorynchus
        • Chilean Dolphin, Cephalorhynchus eutropia
        • Commerson's Dolphin, Cephalorhynchus commersonii
        • Heaviside's Dolphin, Cephalorhynchus heavisidii
        • Hector's Dolphin, Cephalorhynchus hectori
      • Genus Grampus
        • Risso's Dolphin, Grampus griseus
      • Genus Lagenodelphis
        • Fraser's Dolphin, Lagenodelphis hosei
      • Genus Lagenorhyncus
        • Atlantic White-Sided Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus acutus
        • Dusky Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus obscurus
        • Hourglass Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus cruciger
        • Pacific White-Sided Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus obliquidens
        • Peale's Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus australis
        • White-Beaked Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus albirostris
      • Genus Orcaella
        • Australian Snubfin Dolphin, Orcaella heinsohni
        • Irrawaddy Dolphin, Orcaella brevirostris
      • Genus Peponocephala
        • Melon-headed Whale, Peponocephala electra
      • Genus Orcinus
        • Killer Whale, Orcinus orca
      • Genus Feresa
        • Pygmy Killer Whale, Feresa attenuata
      • Genus Pseudorca
        • False Killer Whale, Pseudorca crassidens
      • Genus Globicephala
        • Long-finned Pilot Whale, Globicephala melas
        • Short-finned Pilot Whale, Globicephala macrorhynchus
  • Family Platanistoidea, river dolphins
    • Genus Inia
      • Boto (Amazon River Dolphin), Inia geoffrensis
    • Genus Lipotes
      • Chinese River Dolphin (Baiji), Lipotes vexillifer (considered functionally extinct)
    • Genus Platanista
      • Ganges River Dolphin, Platanista gangetica
      • Indus River Dolphin, Platanista minor
    • Genus Pontoporia
      • La Plata Dolphin (Franciscana), Pontoporia blainvillei

Six species in the family Delphinidae are commonly called "whales" but are strictly speaking dolphins. They are sometimes called "blackfish".

  • Melon-headed Whale, Peponocephala electra
  • Killer Whale, Orcinus orca
  • Pygmy Killer Whale, Feresa attenuata
  • False Killer Whale, Psudorca crassidens
  • Long-finned Pilot Whale, Globicephala melas
  • Short-finned Pilot Whale, Globicephala macrorhynchus

Hybrid dolphins
Dolphin In 1933, three abnormal dolphins were beached off the Irish coast; these appeared to be hybrids between Risso's Dolphin and the Bottlenose Dolphin. This mating has since been repeated in captivity and a hybrid calf was born. In captivity, a Bottlenose Dolphin and a Rough-toothed Dolphin produced hybrid offspring. A Common-Bottlenose hybrid lives at SeaWorld California. Various other dolphin hybrids have also been reported in the wild, such as a Bottlenose-Atlantic Spotted hybrid. The best known hybrid however is the Dolphin, a False Killer Whale-Bottlenose Dolphin hybrid. The Dolphin is a fertile hybrid, and two such Dolphins currently live at the Sea Life Park in Hawaii, the first having been born in 1985 from a male False Killer Whale and a female Bottlenose. Dolphins have also been observed in the wild.

Evolution
Dolphins, along with whales and porpoises, are thought to be descendants of terrestrial mammals, most likely of the Artiodactyl order. The ancestors of the modern day dolphins entered the water roughly fifty million years ago, in the Eocene epoch.

Hind Limb Buds on Dolphins An embryo of a Spotted Dolphin in the fifth week of development. The hind limbs are present as small bumps (hind limb buds) near the base of the tail. The pin is approximately 1 inch (~2,5 cm) long.

Hind Limb Buds on Dolphins An embryo of a Spotted Dolphin in the fifth week of development. The hind limbs are present as small bumps (hind limb buds) near the base of the tail. The pin is approximately 1 inch (~2,5 cm) long.

Modern dolphin skeletons have two small, rod-shaped pelvic bones thought to be vestigial hind legs. In October 2006 an unusual Bottlenose Dolphin was captured in Japan; it had small fins on each side of its genital slit which scientists believe to be a more pronounced development of these vestigial hind legs.

Anatomy
Dolphins have a streamlined fusiform body, adapted for fast swimming. The basic coloration patterns are shades of grey with a light underside and a distinct dark cape on the back. It is often combined with lines and patches of different hue and contrast.

The head contains the melon, a round organ used for echolocation. In many species, the jaws are elongated, forming a distinct beak; for some species Dolphin like the Bottlenose, there is a curved mouth which looks like a fixed smile. Teeth can be very numerous (up to two hundred and fifty) in several species. The dolphin brain is large and has a highly structured cortex, which often is referred to in discussions about their advanced intelligence.

Unlike most mammals, dolphins do not have hair, but they are born with a few hairs around the tip of their rostrum which they lose after some time, in some cases even before they are born. The only exception to this is the Boto river dolphin, which does have some small hairs on the rostrum.

Their reproductive organs are located on the underside of the body. Males have two slits, one concealing the penis and one further behind for the anus. The female has one genital slit, housing the vagina and the anus. A mammary slit is positioned on either side of the female's genital slit.

Senses
Most dolphins have acute eyesight, both in and out of the water, and their sense of hearing is superior to that of humans. Though they have a small ear opening on each side of their head, it is believed that hearing underwater is also if not exclusively done with the lower jaw which conducts the sound vibrations to the middle ear via a fat-filled cavity in the lower jaw bone. Hearing is also used for echolocation, which seems to be an ability all dolphins have. Their teeth are arranged in a way that works as an array or antenna to receive the incoming sound and make it easier for them to pinpoint the exact location of an object. The dolphin's sense of touch is also well-developed. However, dolphins lack an olfactory nerve and lobes and thus are believed to have no sense of smell, but they can taste and do show preferences for certain kinds of fish. Since dolphins spend most of their time below the surface normally, just tasting the water could act in a manner analogous to a sense of smell.

Though most dolphins do not have any hair, they do still have hair follicles and it is believed these might still perform some sensory function, though it is unclear what exactly this may be. The small hairs on the rostrum of the Boto river dolphin are believed to function as a tacticle sense however, possibly to compensate for the Boto's poor eyesight.

Behavior
Dolphins are often regarded as one of Earth's most intelligent animals, though Dolphin it is hard to say just how intelligent dolphins are, as comparisons of species' relative intelligence are complicated by differences in sensory apparatus, response modes, and nature of cognition. Furthermore, the difficulty and expense of doing experimental work with large aquatics means that some tests which could yield meaningful results still have not been carried out, or have been carried out with inadequate sample size and methodology. Dolphin behavior has been studied extensively by humans however, both in captivity and in the wild. See the cetacean intelligence article for more details.

Social behavior
Dolphins are social, living in pods (also called "schools") of up to a dozen individuals. In places with a high abundance of food, pods can join temporarily, forming an aggregation called a super-pod; such groupings may exceed a thousand dolphins. The individuals communicate using a variety of clicks, whistles and other vocalizations. They also use ultrasonic sounds for echolocation. Membership in pods is not rigid; interchange is common. However, the cetaceans can establish strong bonds between each other. This leads to them staying with injured or ill individuals.

In May 2005, researchers in Australia discovered a cultural aspect of dolphin behavior: Some dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) teach their children to use tools. The dolphins break sponges off and cover their snouts with them thus protecting their snouts while foraging. This knowledge of how to use a tool is mostly transferred from mothers to daughters, unlike simian primates, where the knowledge is generally passed on to both sexes. The technology to use sponges as mouth protection is not genetically inherited but a taught behavior.

They are also occasionally willing to approach humans and playfully interact with them in the water. Dolphins have also been known to seemingly protect swimmers from sharks by swimming circles around them.

Dolphins are known to engage in acts of aggression towards each other. The older a male dolphin is, the more likely his body is covered with scars ranging in depth from teeth marks made by other dolphins. It is suggested that male dolphins engage in such acts of aggression for the same reasons as humans: disputes between companions or even competition for other females. Acts of aggression can become so intense that targeted dolphins are known to go into exile, leaving their communities as a result of losing a fight with other dolphins.

Male Bottlenose Dolphins have been known to engage in infanticide. Dolphins have also been known to kill porpoises for reasons which are not fully understood, as porpoises generally do not share the same fish diet as dolphins and are therefore not competitors for food supplies.

Reproduction and sexuality
Dolphin copulation happens belly to belly and though many species engage in lengthy foreplay, the actual act is usually only brief, but may be repeated several times within a short time span. The gestation period varies per species; for the small Tucuxi dolphin, this period is around 11 to 12 months, while for the Orca the gestation period is around 17 months. They usually become sexually active at a young age already, even before reaching sexual maturity. The age at which sexual maturity is reached varies per species and gender.

Dolphins are known to have sex for reasons other than reproduction, sometimes also engaging in acts of a homosexual nature. Various dolphin species have been known to engage in sexual behavior with other dolphin species, this also having resulted in various hybrid dolphin species as mentioned earlier. Sexual encounters may be violent, with male dolphins sometimes showing aggressive behavior towards both females and other male dolphins. Occasionally, dolphins will also show sexual behavior towards other animals, including humans.

Feeding
Various methods of feeding exist, not just between species but also within a species various methods may be employed, some techniques being used by only a single dolphin population. Fish and squid are the main source of food for most dolphin species, but the False Killer Whale and the Killer Whale also feed on other marine mammals.

One feeding method employed by many species is herding, where a pod will control a school of fish while individual members take turns plowing through the school, feeding. The tightly packed school of fish is commonly known as bait ball. Coralling is a method where fish are chased to shallow water where they are more easily captured. In South Carolina, the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin takes this one step further with what has become known as strand feeding, where the fish are driven onto mud banks and retrieved from there. In some places, Orcas will also come up to the beach to capture sea lions. Some species also whack fish with their fluke, stunning them and sometimes sending fish clear out of the water.

Reports of cooperative human-dolphin fisheries date back to the ancient Roman author and natural philospher Pliny. A modern human-dolphin fishery still takes place in Laguna, Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Vocalizations
Dolphins are capable of making a broad range of sounds using nasal air sacs located just below the blowhole. Roughly three categories of sounds can be identified however; frequency modulated sounds which are usually just called whistles; burst-pulsed sounds and clicks. Whistles are used by dolphins to communicate, though the nature and extent of their ability to communicate in this way is not known. Research has shown however that at least some dolphin species are capable of sending identity information to each other using a signature whistle; a whistle that refers specifically to the identity of a certain dolphin. The burst-pulsed sounds are also used for communication, but again the nature and extent of communication possible this way is not known. The clicks are directional and used by dolphins for echolocation and are often in a short series called a click train, the rate increasing when approaching an object of interest. Dolphin echolocation clicks are amongst the loudest sounds made by animals in the sea.

Jumping and playing
Dolphins often leap above the water surface, sometimes performing acrobatic figures (e.g. the spinner dolphin). Scientists are not always quite certain about the purpose of this behavior and the reason for it may vary, it could be to locate schools of fish by looking at above-water signs like feeding birds, they could be communicating to other dolphins to join a hunt, attempting to dislodge parasites, or simply doing it for fun. Play is a very important part of dolphins' lives, and they can often be observed playing with seaweed or play-fighting with other dolphins. They even harass other locals, like seabirds and turtles. Dolphins also seem to enjoy riding waves and frequently 'surf' coastal swells and the bow waves of boats.

Natural threats to dolphins
Except for mankind (discussed below), dolphins have few natural enemies, some species or specific populations having none at all making them apex predators. For most smaller species of dolphins, only a few larger species of shark such as the bull shark, dusky shark, tiger shark and great white shark are a potential risk, especially for calves. Some of the larger dolphin species such as Orcas may also prey on some of the smaller dolphin species, but this seems rare. Dolphins may also suffer from a wide variety of diseases and parasites.

Human threats to dolphins
Some dolphin species face an uncertain future, especially some of the river dolphin species such as the Amazon River dolphin, and the Ganges and Yangtze River dolphin, all of which are critically or seriously endangered. A 2006 survey found no individuals of the Yangtze River dolphin, leading to the conclusion that the species is now functionally extinct.

Contamination of environment - the oceans, seas, and rivers - is an issue of concern, especially pesticides, heavy metals, plastics, and other industrial and agricultural pollutants which do not disintegrate rapidly in the environment are reducing dolphin populations, and resulting in dolphins building up unusually high levels of contaminants. Injuries or deaths due to collisions with boats, especially their propellers, are also common.

Various fishing methods, most notably purse seine fishing for tuna and the use of drift and gill nets, results in a large amounts of dolphins being killed inadvertently. Accidental by-catch in trout nets is common and poses a risk for mainly local dolphin populations. In some parts of the world, such as some areas in Japan and the Faroe Islands, dolphins are traditionally considered as food, and killed in harpoon or drive hunts.

Mythology
Dolphins have long played a role in human culture. Dolphins are common in Greek mythology and there are many coins from the time which feature a man or boy riding on the back of a dolphin. The Ancient Greeks treated them with welcome; a ship spotting dolphins riding in their wake was considered a good omen for a smooth voyage. Dolphins also seem to have been important to the Minoans, judging by artistic evidence from the ruined palace at Knossos. In Hindu mythology, the Ganges River Dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges river.

Therapy
Dolphins are an increasingly popular choice of animal-assisted therapy for psychological problems and developmental disabilities. For example, a 2005 study with 30 participants found it was an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression. However, this study was criticized on several grounds; for example, it is not known whether dolphins are more effective than common pets. Reviews of this and other published dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) studies have found important methodological flaws and have concluded that there is no compelling scientific evidence that DAT is a legitimate therapy or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in mood.

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