Bulletin 10 - March 1980: A False Killer Whale

A False Killer Whale

By Bish Brown

On Friday, January 11 1980, a small whale, 14 feet long, was beached in the Port Road area of Abu Dhabi by a fisherman who had found it entangled in his nets. The fisherman bemoaned its worthlessness on the market and the damage to his nets, but it was in fact a significant specimen. It was called variously "nihm" or "hoot" by local fishermen.

The mammal was photographed and measured and details posted off to the International Dolphin Watch, a project covering the world's oceans. Clear identification was difficult, but it was narrowed down to a pilot whale or a false killer. It had teeth and a dorsal fin.

At the beginning of February, a reply was received from Mr. D.A. McBrearty, Department of Anatomy, Cambridge University, who resolved the problem. His letter takes up the story from the photographs:

". . . they show quite clearly that what you have on the beach is a female false killer whale, Pseudorca crassidens. It is an interesting animal in many ways. Firstly, it is primarily an oceanic species believed to be worldwide in tropical and temperate seas and not often encountered close inshore. Despite this fact, several mass strandings have occurred in such widely separated places as Scotland, Florida and New Zealand. There is a record of a single animal from Karachi in 1977 but nothing from the Arabian Gulf in recent years.

"The first false killer whale was described by Sir Richard Owen in 1846 and he based his description upon a sub-fossil skeleton which was found at Stamford, Lincs. The characteristics of the skull and teeth were believed to indicate something halfway between Orca (killer whale) and Globicephala (pilot whale).

"The largest males may reach 20 feet in length, and the largest females probably about 16 feet. Birth length is said to be about six feet for both sexes . . . I suspect that at 14 feet (your specimen) would have been sexually mature, but a look at the ovaries would confirm any past reproductive activity."

Mr. McBrearty asks for specimens of whale skulls, if possible, preferably in a sealed plastic bag, and also for the gonads of any future incidental catch in a 10% formalin fixative.

Although whale sightings seem to be decreasing in the Gulf in recent years, there are still plenty around. Photographs and measurements of an unidentifiable fish/animal found in the Emirates would be useful for the Group and possibly for the International Dolphin Watch.

Incidentally, the confusion in nomenclature of "when is a dolphin a porpoise" can generally be resolved by saying:

A dolphin has a beak-shaped snout while a porpoise has a rounded snout without a beak. They are both from the toothed whale family Odontocete and are less than 15 feet long when fully grown.


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