Globicephala melaslong-finned pilot whale

Geographic Range

Globicephala melas has a disjunct, antitropical distribution in the Northern and Southern hemispheres of the globe. It is absent from equatorial regions. The northern group is distributed in the Atlantic Ocean around Greenland, Iceland, the Barents and North seas, extending south to the north-east coast of the United States and east into the Mediterranean Sea. The southern group is distributed in the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, particularly around Australia and New Zealand. Ocean currents where G. melas is found include the Benguela, Falkland, and Humboldt currents. (Oremus, 2009; Watson, 1981)


Long-finned pilot whales prefer cooler saltwater aquatic biomes from 13 to 30 degrees Celsius. Their diving depths can vary tremendously, with a range of from 30 to 1,800 meters. They are found in both pelagic and coastal aquatic biomes. (Canadas, 2006; Oremus, 2009; Watson, 1981)

  • Range depth
    1,800 to 30 m
    to 98.43 ft

Physical Description

The most characteristic trait of long-finned pilot whales is their large, bulbous, melon-shaped head. Long-finned pilot whales are mostly black with a gray saddle patch behind their dorsal fin and an anchor-shaped mark on their ventral surface. Males can reach up to 8.5 meters, with the average length being 6 meters, and can weigh up to 3,800 kg. Females are smaller, reaching a maximum length of 6 meters, with the average length being 4.8 meters, and can weigh up to 1,800 kg. Initially, calves do not have the bulbous head. The melon grows as the calf matures. (Bonner, 1989; Watson, 1981)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    males: 3,800 females: 1,800 (high) kg
  • Range length
    males: 8.5 females: 6 (high) m
  • Average length
    males: 6 females: 4.8 m


Mating takes place between, not within, pods. Males display an aggressive courtship behavior, including forcefully colliding melon-to-melon at a heightened speed. The mating system is polygynous. (Bonner, 1989; Canadas, 2006; Watson, 1981)

Mating can occur throughout the year, but the peak of the mating season is in the spring and early summer between April and June. Females are ready to breed when they are 6 years old. Males take longer to mature, reaching sexual maturity at around 12 years of age. Gestation lasts for 16 months, and females give birth to one offspring, weighing approximately 100 kg and measuring about 1.8 meters in length. Weaning occurs between 23 and 27 months of age. There is a four year hiatus between births. (Amos, et al., 1990; Ross, 2006; Watson, 1981)

  • Breeding interval
    Females mate every 4 years, typically.
  • Breeding season
    Peak breeding season is in the spring and early summer between April and June.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 (high)
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    16 months
  • Average gestation period
    450 days
  • Range weaning age
    23 to 27 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    2470 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    12 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    4380 days

Females are the primary caregivers for calves. Related females usually stay together and form a cohesive pod, whereas mature males travel from one pod to the next. (Amos, et al., 1990; Canadas, 2006)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • 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


Females live longer than males, with a maximum lifespan of 59 years. The maximum lifespan for males is 46 years. (Ross, 2006)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    Male: 46 Female: 59 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    60 (high) years


Long-finned pilot whales are highly gregarious creatures, living in pods. Pods are usually comprised of 10 to 50 individuals, but can be larger than 1000. While pods consist of both males and females, there are usually a greater number of females, since males have a higher mortality rate and leave their pod when sexually mature in order to mate. Pods participate in spy-hopping and tail-slapping activities. (Amos, et al., 1990; Ross, 2006)

Home Range

Long-finned pilot whales are fully aquatic and nomadic, wandering over wide ranges throughout the year. Their movements track food resources, such as concentrations of squid. (Ross, 2006)

Communication and Perception

The dominant form of communication involves various audible whistles. Whistling remains simple during periods of rest. However, the intricacy of the whistles increases during times of excitement, as well as when the pod is in the process of killing prey. Complex whistles are also heard while the pod is eating and when traveling speeds are high. This indicates that such activities require a greater amount of coordination in the pod. Sounds are also used in echolocation, allowing these whales to orient themselves in space. (Watson, 1981; Weilgart and Whitehead, 1990)

Food Habits

Long-finned pilot whales are carnivorous, feeding primarily on mollusks and fish, and eating around 34 kg (75 lb) of food a day. Squid, such as Logio pealei and Illex illecebrous, are favorite foods. Fish, such as mackerel, Atlantic herring, cod, and turbot, are also popular foods. These whales are known to take advantage of the grouping effects of human commercial fishing activities as a way to easily catch prey. (Gannon, et al., 1997; Watson, 1981)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks


Humans are known predators of this species. Globicephala melas is hunted for its meat, especially in the Faeroe Islands. (Bonner, 1989)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Long-finned pilot whales may influence squid and fish populations throughout their range, since those are preferred foods and these whales consume massive amounts of food every day. (Ross, 2006)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • stenurosis parasite (Stenurus globicephalae)
  • vibrio bacteria (Vibrio alginolyticus)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

One way in which long-finned pilot whales have a positive economic importance for humans is that it serves as a source of food for some humans. However, they are not an important source of food. Long-finned pilot whales are also maintained in captivity for human entertainment and education and are capable of learning to respond to human commands. Although the value of captive whales for education is very controversial. (Bonner, 1989)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Long-finned pilot whales sometimes become entangled in drift nets, a cost to the commercial fishing industry. However, the use of different net designs could make this more avoidable. (Ross, 2006)

Conservation Status

Long-finned pilot whales are considered "data deficient" by the IUCN and the taxonomy of populations worldwide is unresolved. More than one species may be represented by G. melas populations and, if so, it is likely that several of those taxonomic units would be recognized at a higher risk category. Population declines are documented in most populations. A subspecies recognized from Japanese waters became extinct by the 12th century. As a whale species, long-finned pilot whales are listed on Appendix II of CITES. (Taylor, et al., 2008)

Other Comments

Long-finned pilot whales are one of two species in the genus Globicephala, the other being short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrohynchus. (Watson, 1981)


Julianne Preston (author), Michigan State University, Barbara Lundrigan (editor), Michigan State University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map

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 a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.


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.

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

The process by which an animal locates itself with respect to other animals and objects by emitting sound waves and sensing the pattern of the reflected sound waves.


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.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


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).


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.


active during the night


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.


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


an animal that mainly eats fish


having more than one female as a mate at one time

saltwater or marine

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


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


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.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Amos, B., J. Berrett, G. Dover. 1990. Breeding behavior of pilot whales revealed by DNA fingerprinting. The Genetical Society of Great Britain, 67: 49-55.

Bonner, N. 1989. Whales of the World. New York, New York: Library of Congress Cataloging.

Canadas, A. 2006. The northeastern Alboran Sea, an important breeding and feeding ground for the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) in the Meditteranean Sea. Marine Mammal Science, 16/3.26: 513-529.

Foote, A. 2008. Mortality rate acceleration and post-reproductive lifespan in matrilineal whale species. Biology letters Evolutionary biology, 4: 189-191.

Gannon, D., A. Read, J. Craddock, K. Fristrup, J. Nicolas. 1997. Feeding ecology of long-finned pilot whales Globicephala melas, in the western North Atlantic. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 148: 1-10. Accessed February 20, 2010 at

Oremus, M. 2009. Worldwide mitochondrial DNA diversity and phylogeography of pilot whales. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 98/4: 729-744.

Ross, G. 2006. Review of the conservation status of Australia's smaller whales and dolphins. Canberra, Australia: Australian Government.

Taylor, B., R. Baird, J. Barlow, S. Dawson, J. Ford, J. Mead, G. Notarbartolo di Sciara, P. Wade, R. Pitman. 2008. "Globicephala melas" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.2. Accessed August 07, 2010 at

Watson, L. 1981. Whales of the World. London: Hutchinson.

Weilgart, L., H. Whitehead. 1990. Vocalizations of the North Atlantic pilot whale (Globicephala melas) as related to behavioral contexts. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 26/6: 399-402.