Short-finned pilot whales identified for first time in Massachusetts

Thursday, 13 October, 2011
Yarmouth Port, MA
Two separate whale strandings in Massachusetts have been linked by unusual species identification this week by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW - and the New England Aquarium (NEAq). One pilot whale stranded in Duxbury on Monday followed by another pilot whale in Truro on Tuesday. Pilot whale strandings are relatively uncommon, but what makes these cases especially unique is that both animals have been identified as Short-finned pilot whales – not the Long-finned pilot whales that frequent the northern Atlantic.

While the name of these two species of pilot whales seem to indicate only slight differences, biology shows that  they are actually very different species of whales - both physically and genetically. “To put it in perspective a household dog and a gray wolf actually have more in common genetically than these two types of whales,” said Brian Sharp, IFAW Stranding Coordinator.

Massachusetts is far beyond the normal tropical distribution range for Short-finned pilot whales and their presence has never been documented in this state. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s national stranding database, one stranded in Rhode Island in 2001, but this was the only known case of this species inhabiting waters north of New Jersey. Their typical range is in the warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic from Florida to Cape Hatteras.

The 1,236 pound, 11.3 foot female whale died at approximately 5 p.m. on Tuesday just before the IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team arrived. There were no obvious signs of the cause of stranding and three to four other pilot whales were sighted 50 to 100 yards off shore.

“The Short-finned pilot whale that stranded in Truro came to shore at almost dead low tide and was caught behind a sandbar. This may have been a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as other pilot whales were sighted just offshore when it stranded,” said Sharp. “This whale’s unfortunate death at least will provide an opportunity for us to learn more about another whale species through an animal autopsy and CT scans.”

It is unknown why the animals ventured into the colder waters off New England. One possibility is that the warmer weather drew them north or they may be extending their habitat range.

Short-finned pilot whales are a distinctly different species than the Long-finned pilot whales. They are a smaller, shorter, deeper-chested animal with shorter pectoral flippers, fewer teeth, slightly different markings and a taller dorsal fin.

If you see a live or dead stranded marine mammal south of Plymouth through Rhode Island, please report it to the IFAW emergency hotline at 508-743-9548, from Plymouth north to Maine please contact the NEAq emergency hotline at 617-973-5247.

About IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare)
Founded in 1969, IFAW saves animals in crisis around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Photos are available at

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Kerry Branon (IFAW- HQ)
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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation