Orcaella brevirostrisIrrawaddy dolphin

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Geographic Range

Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) are found throughout much of the tropical and subtropical Indo-Pacific region; along the coasts of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia (Kampuchea), Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic (Laos), Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darrusalam, and Indonesia. ("Mammalian Species Orcaella brevirostris", 1999; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

Habitat

Irrawaddy dolphins prefer coastal areas, particularly muddy, brackish waters at river mouths and deltas, and do not appear to venture far offshore. Most sightings have been made within 1.6 km of the coastline, but some have been reported in waters greater than 5 km from shore. Some populations are apparently restricted to fresh water, e.g. Chilka Lake, India, and Songhkla, Thailand. ("Irrawaddy Dolphin", 2006; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

  • Range depth
    2.5 to 18.0 m
    8.20 to 59.06 ft

Physical Description

Unlike other dolphins, Irrawaddy dolphins lack a beak and have flexible necks. The flexibility in the neck causes visible creases behind the head. Additionally, Irrawaddy dolphins have bulging heads, with the forehead extending past the mouth, broad triangular, paddle-like, pectoral fins, and small, triangular dorsal fins set approximately two-thirds of the body length along the back. Skin coloration varies from slate-blue to slate-gray with a lighter underside. The face and head are similar in appearance to beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Irrawaddy dolphins have narrow, pointed, peg-like teeth about 1 cm in length in both the upper and lower jaws. Body mass varies from 114 kg to 143 kg and the length ranges from 146 cm to 275 cm. Males tend to be larger in mass and length, with a larger dorsal fin. Irrawaddy dolphins lack a cardiac sphincter and the stomach is subdivided into compartments. ("Irrawaddy Dolphin", 2006; "Trey Psaut Cambodia’s Irrawaddy Dolphin", 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    114 to 133 kg
    251.10 to 292.95 lb
  • Average mass
    124 kg
    273.13 lb
  • Range length
    146 to 275 cm
    57.48 to 108.27 in
  • Average length
    210 cm
    82.68 in

Reproduction

Little is currently known about mating systems in Irrawaddy dolphins. Since the animals live in small groups averaging between three to six individuals, it is presumed that breeding happens outside of those groups. The breeding season is between December and June; however, little is known about mating behavior. As in other dolphin species, it can be presumed that males mate with multiple females and compete over mates. ("Orcaella brevirostris (Gray, 1866)", 2010; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

There is relatively little information on reproduction in Irrawaddy dolphins. The mating season in the northern hemisphere is reported to be December to June. The calving season seems to be from June to August, with noted exceptions. Data from Chilka Lake, India shows a low rate of breeding and production of only a single calf in three years. Additionally, gestation is approximately nine months, but data from two captive births estimate the gestation period at fourteen months. Captive born Irrawaddy dolphin calves measured 96 cm in length and weighed 12.3 kg. In the first seven months the calves increased in length by 59% and 266% in weight. Calves begin eating fish around six months and are fully weaned at about two years old. Adult length is achieved between three and five years old. Rate of sexual maturation is thought to be positively correlated with growth rate. ("Mammalian Species Orcaella brevirostris", 1999; "Orcaella brevirostris (Gray, 1866)", 2010; "Trey Psaut Cambodia’s Irrawaddy Dolphin", 2007; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

  • Breeding interval
    Females may not reproduce yearly, in one population females give birth every 3 years.
  • Breeding season
    Irrawaddy dolphins breed in December through June.
  • Average number of offspring
    1
  • Average number of offspring
    1
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    9 to 14 months
  • Average weaning age
    24 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 to 6 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 to 6 years

Irrawaddy dolphins are not completely weaned until 2 years. From birth to approximately seven months old, the calf survives solely on the nutrition from the mother. For the following seven months the calves stay within the pod and continue to receive nourishment from the mother while also eating fish. It is presumed the calves learn to prey on fish by copying behavior of the mother's and pod mates. There is little information on the rearing of calves. Currently it is not known if both males and females are involved in the upbringing of calves. Like most mammals, females invest heavily in their young. ("Orcaella brevirostris (Gray, 1866)", 2010; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

  • Parental Investment
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning

Lifespan/Longevity

The oldest recorded Irrawaddy dolphins, all of which were found dead in fishing nets, were estimated to be 28 years old. Several individuals of this age have been found, all entangled in nets, so it is believed that Irrawaddy dolphins can live longer. Due to the small population size of Irrawady dolphins and subsequent difficulty in tracking the species, no further information is known regarding average lifespan. ("Trey Psaut Cambodia’s Irrawaddy Dolphin", 2007; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    28 to 30 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    32 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    5 to 32 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    16 years

Behavior

Irrawaddy dolphins stay in groups of three to six individuals and are social within their pods. They are also social outside of their group and mixing between groups has been reported. When scouting areas, Irrawaddy dolphins raise their heads out of the water and rotate around to see their surroundings. Irrawaddy dolphins swim slowly and display sluggish movements. When they surface to take a breath, only the top of the head is visible and it is done quickly; only 14% of all surfacings between long dives include rolling, splashing, or limb waving and slapping. Before an Irrawaddy dolphin dives, it usually surfaces two times. The longest recorded dive is over six minutes long.

Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilka Lake are known to swim onto a sand bar and roll around, then retreat if disturbed. Irrawaddy dolphins have also been seen waving or slapping their flippers and tail, breaching or partially leaping from the water, blowing bubbles, rolling sideways, and pausing at the surface. Water spitting has been observed on numerous occasions, but the reason for this behavior is unknown. Local fisherman report that they are able to identify individual dolphins based on unique behaviors. ("Mammalian Species Orcaella brevirostris", 1999; "Status and Conservation of Facultative Freshwater Cetaceans in Asia", 2002; Dawblin, 1972; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

Home Range

Groups of Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit discrete ranges of approximately 35 km in length, based on some observations.

Communication and Perception

Vocalizations of Irrawaddy dolphins in captivity within the Mahakam River, Indonesia included a single-component sonar signal, with the majority of frequencies captured at 60 kHz. Pulse trains were consistent with rates repeated at 40 to 60 kHz. Researchers theorize that Irrawaddy dolphins have a narrow sonar field. Little is known or recorded regarding courtship communication or other social signals. ("Mammalian Species Orcaella brevirostris", 1999; Kamminga, et al., 1983; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

Food Habits

Irrawaddy dolphins feed on fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. Irrawaddy dolphins sometimes spit water while feeding, which may be used to herd fish.

Researchers have documented that in the Irrawaddy (or Ayerarwady) River, Myanmar, these dolphins engage in cooperative fishing with cast-net fishermen. Fishermen search for dolphins and call them by tapping a lahai kway, wooden key, on the sides of their boats. One or two lead dolphins then swim in smaller and smaller semi-circles herding the fish towards the shore. During cooperative fishing, the dolphins often dive deeply with their flukes aloft just after the net is cast and create turbulence under the surface around the outside of the net. The dolphins seem to benefit from the fishing by preying on fish that are confused by the sinking net, and those trapped around the edges of the lead line or stuck in the mud bottom just after the net is pulled up. ("Facultative river dolphins : conservation and social ecology of freshwater and coastal Irrawaddy dolphins in Indonesia", 2004; Smith and Mya, 2007)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • eggs
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans

Predation

Other than humans, there are no known natural predators of Irrawaddy dolphins. Humans are responsible for a large number of deaths because Irrawaddy dolphins are often caught in nets or harmed through destructive fishing practices (e.g., dynamite fishing). Otherwise, they are typically considered the top predator in their river ecosystems. ("Orcaella brevirostris (Gray, 1866)", 2010; Stacey and Leatherwood, 1997)

Ecosystem Roles

Irrawaddy dolphins are top ecosystem predators, feeding on fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. They are hosts for parasites including roundworms (Anisakis simplex), flukes (Braunina cordiformis), and tapeworms (Monorygma delphini). Healthy dolphin populations indicate a healthy marine ecosystem. (Boran, et al., 2009)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

In the Irrawaddy River these dolphins engage in cooperative fishing with cast-net fishermen. Irrawaddy dolphins increase the amount of fish the fishermen catch; therefore, they are of economic value. Additionally, Irrawaddy dolphins have brought ecotourism to communities in Indonesia and India. ("Facultative river dolphins : conservation and social ecology of freshwater and coastal Irrawaddy dolphins in Indonesia", 2004; "Status and Conservation of Facultative Freshwater Cetaceans in Asia", 2002; Sutaria, 2005)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

The only way that Irrawaddy dolphins may have a negative economic impact on humans is that they share a common food source. Some fisherman believe the dolphins are pests because they reduce their catch, although this is unlikely. ("Status and Conservation of Facultative Freshwater Cetaceans in Asia", 2002)

Conservation Status

Currently, the most immediate threat facing Irrawaddy dolphins is drowning in gill nets. The threat of gill net entanglement occurs primarily during the dry season (December to May), when dolphins settle in deep water pools. Dynamite and electric fishing occur in some important habitats. These activities are causing depletion of the dolphin's fish supply and noise from the explosions is potentially dangerous to dolphins. Due to the small population size and their narrow distribution, it is quite possible that dam construction anywhere within their habitat might critically endanger populations. Furthermore, uncontrolled tourism can harass dolphins in important habitats during the dry season and interfere with normal activities, such as feeding, resting, and socializing. Overfishing, collisions with boats and injuries from boat propellers are also threats to their survival. ("Facultative river dolphins : conservation and social ecology of freshwater and coastal Irrawaddy dolphins in Indonesia", 2004; "Status and Conservation of Facultative Freshwater Cetaceans in Asia", 2002)

Contributors

Melissa Koss (author), San Diego Mesa College, Lucretia Mahan (author), San Diego Mesa College, Sam Merrill (author), San Diego Mesa College, Paul Detwiler (editor), San Diego Mesa College, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

estuarine

an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).

molluscivore

eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

ultrasound

uses sound above the range of human hearing for either navigation or communication or both

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

2004. "Facultative river dolphins : conservation and social ecology of freshwater and coastal Irrawaddy dolphins in Indonesia" (On-line). University Van Amsterdam Digital Academic Repository. Accessed March 08, 2010 at http://dare.uva.nl/document/115596.

2006. "Irrawaddy Dolphin" (On-line). Ocean Park and Recreation Foundation Hong Kong. Accessed March 08, 2010 at http://www.opcf.org.hk/pdf/species/Irrawaddy_Dolphin.pdf.

1999. Mammalian Species Orcaella brevirostris. American Society of Mammologist, 616: 1-8. Accessed March 08, 2010 at http://www.science.smith.edu/msi/pdf/i0076-3519-616-01-0001.pdf.

2010. "Orcaella brevirostris (Gray, 1866)" (On-line pdf). Convention on Migratory Species. Accessed March 08, 2010 at http://www.cms.int/reports/small_cetaceans/data/O_brevirostris/O_brevirostris.PDF.

2002. "Status and Conservation of Facultative Freshwater Cetaceans in Asia" (On-line pdf). Accessed March 08, 2010 at http://137.110.142.7/uploadedFiles/Divisions/PRD/Publications/Smith_Jefferson2002(66).pdf.

2007. "Trey Psaut Cambodia’s Irrawaddy Dolphin" (On-line pdf). Accessed March 08, 2010 at http://faculty.washington.edu/banasn/animals/student_work/Julia%20Boubel,%20Trey%20Psaut.pdf.

Boran, J., A. Hoelzel, P. Evans. 2009. "Whales, porpoises and dolphins." (On-line). Accessed April 24, 2010 at http://www.service-board.de/ascobans_neu/files/ac16/AC16_31_OrderCetacea_SWF.pdf.

Dawblin, W. 1972. Whales and Dolphins. Pp. 274 in P Ryan, ed. Encyclopedia of Papua New Guinea, Vol. 1, 1 Edition. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Kamminga, C., H. Wiersma, W. Dudok Van Heel. 1983. Sonar sounds from Orcaella brevirostris of the Mahakam River, East Kalimantan Indonesia. Aquatic Mammals, 10: 83-95.

Smith, B., T. Mya. 2007. Status and conservation of Irrawaddy Dolphins in Ayeyarwady river of Myanmar. Status and conservation of freshwater populations of irrawaddy dolphins, 31: 21-40.

Stacey, P., S. Leatherwood. 1997. Asian Marine Biology: 1997. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Sutaria, D. 2005. "Irrawaddy dolphin - India" (On-line). Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Accessed April 24, 2010 at http://www.wdcs.org/submissions_bin/consprojectirr.pdf.