Phocoenoides dalliDall's porpoise

Geographic Range

Dall's porpoises, Phocoenoides dalli, are cool water porpoises inhabiting the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas. The central Bering Sea marks the northern boundary of their range and, although they prefer colder water, Dall's porpoises are found in the warmer waters of Baja California on the east to southern Japan on the west. They are frequently observed in these lower latitudes during the winter months. There are potentially two subspecies of Dall's porpoises, although they may simply be color morphs, P. dalli dalli and P. dalli truei. Phocoenoides dalli truei is abundant only off the Pacific coast of northern Japan. (Genther, 2000; Klinowska, 1991; Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994)


Generally the colder waters of the North Pacific are home to Dall's porpoises. They are observed inshore and offshore. They are a deep water species, so when they approach the coast they usually follow canyons or deep channels. They are also commonly observed in sounds and inland passages where these meet the open sea. (Klinowska, 1991; Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994)

Physical Description

Dall's porpoises are the largest of the phocoenids. They typically reach a length of 1.8 to 2.0 meters, rarely more than 2.2 meters. At birth, the length is between 0.85 and 1.0 meters. Weight in adults varies from 130 to 220 kilograms. The body is stocky and more powerful than other members of Phocoenidae. The head is small and lacks a beak although there is a sloping forehead. The flippers are small, pointed, and located near the head. The dorsal fin is triangular in shape with a hooked tip.

There are three color patterns observed in the Dall's porpoises. The first is a uniform black or white throughout the entire body. The second pattern consists of intermixed stripes of black and white running along the length of the body. Finally, there is the most common color pattern observed, that of P. dalli dalli. This is defined as having a dorsal area uniformly black with a white ventral side. The white ventral patch begins far behind the flippers. The dorsal fin, flippers, and fluke are black with some white at the tips. The color pattern of P. dalli truei is different only in the distribution of the white ventral patch. The white patch begins ahead of the flippers rather than far behind them, and P. dalli truei is often longer and slimmer than P. dalli dalli. (Genther, 2000; Klinowska, 1991; Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    130 to 220 kg
    286.34 to 484.58 lb
  • Range length
    2.2 (high) m
    7.22 (high) ft
  • Average length
    1.8-2.0 m


Little is known about mating in cetaceans, especially in species which occur primarily offshore. Mating systems in Dall's porpoises are unknown.

Little is known about the reproductive biology of Dall's porpoises. Two calving periods have been reported for portions of the eastern North Pacific, one in winter, from February through March, and the other in summer, from July through August. Some segregation of animals seems to occur with juveniles found closer to shore and larger adults well offshore. In offshore areas, females in late pregnancy or lactation seem to be distributed in northern areas, and southern areas are mainly occupied by males and females not accompanied with calves. This seems to indicate that not all females become pregnant every year. Females usually reach sexual maturity between the age of 3 to 6 years, whereas males reach sexual maturity between the ages of 5 to 8 years. Gestation is believed to last about 11 months, and lactation periods are usually about 2 years.

Phocoenoides dalli dalli appear to have three major breeding grounds. Two occur in the North Pacific north of 45 degree latitude, and another breeding site occurs in the central Bering Sea. Phocoenoides dalli truei may breed off the northern coast of Japan. (Klinowska, 1991; Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994)

  • Breeding interval
    Individual females probably do not breed every year. Breeding intervals may be as long as 3 to 4 years because of the length of dependence of calves.
  • Breeding season
    Mating is likely to occur after the calving seasons each year which occur in winter, from February to March, and in summer, from July to August.
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    11 months
  • Average gestation period
    347 days
  • 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)
    5 to 8 years

Females feed and care for their offspring for extended periods of time. It is likely that some form of extended learning occurs during this period as well. Male parents do not contribute parental care.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • extended period of juvenile learning


The average lifespan of a Dall's Porpoise is 16-17 years. (Klinowska, 1991)


Dall's porpoises usually occur in small groups of 10 to 20 individuals, although aggregations of at least 200 have been reported. They occur only rarely in groups of mixed species, although further north they are sometimes seen in the company of harbor porpoises, especially in the deep waters off Alaska and in Prince William Sound. They have also been spotted with gray whales. Migration north in summer and south in winter has been reported.

Dall's porpoises do not exhibit the typical shy and secretive behavior of most other porpoises. They are frequently seen charging boats and bow-riding. They are the fastest of the phocoenids and reach speeds of up to 35 mph. They frequently swim in a zig-zag pattern with fast, jerky, steep angled turns. Dall's porpoises may surface with a slow roll, a fast roll, or a rooster-tailing roll. The rooster-tailing roll is often used to identify the species in the wild. The spray resulting from this roll is a cone of water coming off the head of the porpoise which looks like a "rooster tail" due to the quick speed and steep angles at which the species surfaces. (Klinowska, 1991)

Communication and Perception

As in most phocoenids, Dall's porpoises use a form of echolocation to navigate, capture prey, and perhaps to communicate with conspecifics. They also use a variety of audible clicks and whistles. They may also use touch for social communication.

Food Habits

Dall's porpoises apparently feed at night and depend to some degree on the deep scattering layer, that is the fauna which travels upwards each night from the deeper parts of the ocean's water column. Food species as determined from stomach contents include squid and other cephalopods, lanternfish, Pacific hake, jack mackerel, herring, sardines, and crustaceans. Dall's porpoises are thought to be capable of deep diving because mesopelagic, bathypelagic, and deep-water benthic species are represented in the diet. (Klinowska, 1991; Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans


Killer whales and sharks are believed to be the primary natural predators of Dall's porpoises. They largely escape predation through their large body size, agility in the water, and their habit of traveling in groups. Their coloration may make them difficult to see in the water as well.

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Dall's porpoises are important predators of fish and cephalopods in the ecosystems in which they live.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The only direct commercial harvest of Dall's porpoises is a traditional coastal harpoon fishery in Japan which accounts for annual harvests of about 6,000 animals to compensate for the shortage of whale meat. Dall's porpoises contribute to marine ecotourism through their gregariousness and their aquatic antics. (Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Dall's porpoises have no negative effects on humans.

Conservation Status

Dall's porpoises are not directly exploited in the eastern Pacific, but serious conservation problems are centered in the western Pacific where, during the 1980's, Dall's porpoises were intensely hunted. Estimates suggested 40,367 Dall's porpoises were killed in 1989 from the Japanese hand-harpoon fishery alone. In recent years these numbers have declined because of the Japanese government's effort to regulate the hand-harpooning of these animals. In 1992 11,403 were killed. This species is often killed accidentally in the Japanese seas and off of North America by drift nets set for salmon. It has been estimated that up to 20,000 porpoises are entangled and drowned in these nets off of Japan and up to about 4,100 off of North America annually. Due to international negotiations between Japan and the United States, along with new fishing gear and techniques, the incidental take has been reduced drastically. However, the conservation of Dall's porpoises remains a major issue. (Klinowska, 1991; Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jeffrey Decker (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


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


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.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


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.


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.


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


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).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

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


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


an animal that mainly eats fish


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.

saltwater or marine

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

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


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


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


uses sight to communicate


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

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Genther, K. 2000. "Dall's porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli): The difference between the subspecies" (On-line). Accessed March 08, 2004 at

Klinowska, M. 1991. Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales of the World. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Reeves, R., S. Leatherwood. 1994. Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.