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7 Facts You Should Know About Porpoises—aka the Dolphin's Introverted Cousin

Get to know the porpoise—the sweet and shy cousin of the dolphin. Here's what's putting them at risk, facts you should know, and how to help save them.

porpoise facts
Written by
Riley Baker
Porpoises are among the most fascinating creatures in the seas. Unfortunately, these marine treasures are facing serious threats, resulting in their
endangered status
As we sail across the ocean of knowledge about these fascinating mammals, we'll unravel some little-known facts that will undoubtedly leave you with a deeper appreciation for their existence. Here's everything you should know about porpoises.

What's the Difference Between Porpoises and Dolphins?

At first glance, you may mistake a porpoise for a dolphin. But despite their shared marine habitat, porpoises and dolphins are distinct species with unique characteristics. 
Size and Shape:
The most noticeable difference lies within their physical attributes. Dolphins tend to be larger, ranging from
6 to 12 feet
, while porpoises rarely exceed 7 feet. When you cast an eye on their bodies, you'll notice dolphins have a lean and elongated form, whereas porpoises are more rotund, embodying a sturdy build. 
Another distinguishing feature can be observed in their dorsal fin and face. Dolphins brandish a curved or hooked dorsal fin, while porpoises sport a triangular one. Moreover, the dolphin's beak-like snout sets it apart from the porpoise's blunt and rounded face. 
Perhaps a lesser-known (yet intriguing) difference can be found in their teeth. Dolphins have cone-shaped teeth, while porpoises' teeth are spade-like. This minor distinction is a significant identifier for scientists studying these marine creatures.
Behavioral Differences:
Dolphins and porpoises also have differing behavioral characteristics. Dolphins are known for their acrobatic stunts—leaping out of water, riding swells, and even interacting with humans. Porpoises, on the other hand, are more introverted. They're not typically seen making grand leaps or approaching boats, as they're shy and elusive by nature.
Another fascinating difference is their communication patterns. Dolphins are renowned for their complex vocalizations, while porpoises are relatively quiet. These unique behaviors enhance our understanding and appreciation of the diversity within the marine ecosystem. 

Are Porpoises Endangered?

There are seven species of porpoises, and most are currently classified as either "endangered" or "critically endangered" on the IUCN's Red List. Among the porpoise species, three are particularly at risk.
Vaquita: With an estimated
10 vaquitas
left in the wild, it's not just the most endangered porpoise species—it's also one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. This porpoise has a unique large dark ring around its eyes and dark patches on its lips. According to the
World Wildlife Fund
, it's likely that the "species will become extinct without a fully enforced gillnet ban throughout their entire habitat," which is located in the northern Gulf of California in Mexico.
Yangtze Finless Porpoise: It's estimated that only
1,000 to 1,800
of the Yangtze finless porpoise remain in the wild. Known for its high intelligence (it's as smart as a gorilla!) and adorable smile, that's very sad news for the planet.
Baltic Sea Harbour Porpoise: Only a
few hundred
Baltic Sea Harbour porpoises are believed to remain, making it one of the most endangered populations of cetaceans. The greatest threat to the population? Bycatch. According to experts, in order to prevent the species from going extinct, "bycatch must be reduced—ideally to zero."

What's Threatening Porpoises?

Porpoises are facing a multitude of threats that are pushing them closer to extinction. These threats, both natural and man-made, are compounding the challenges for these fascinating marine creatures.

1. Bycatch

Bycatch is the unintentional capture of non-target species during fishing. Porpoises, due to their size and habitat, often get entangled in fishing nets and gear, leading to injuries and often death.

2. Pollution

Chemical pollutants and marine debris,
including plastic
, are a significant problem. These pollutants can harm porpoises directly or indirectly by contaminating their food sources.

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3. Climate Change

Changes in
sea temperatures
, sea levels, and food availability due to
climate change
can disrupt porpoise habitats and migration patterns.

4. Habitat Loss

Coastal development, dredging, and other human activities can destroy porpoise habitats. Additionally, the noise pollution from boat traffic and offshore construction interferes with their communication and hunting, disrupting their natural behavior and survival.

5 Porpoise Facts You Should Know

The porpoise, small and humble as it may seem, harbors a captivating array of unique characteristics. Enigmatic and elusive, they're nothing short of a marvel of the underwater kingdom. Here are intriguing facts about these extraordinary marine mammals you should know. 

1. They Use Echolocation

Porpoises use echolocation to get around and find food in the dark depths of the ocean. So, how does that work, exactly? They emit a
series of clicks and buzzing sounds
, then listen for the echo to determine the location and distance of objects (including their prey, like fish and the occasional squid or octopus).

2. They Live in Close-Knit Groups

While dolphins are super social animals and prefer living in large groups, porpoises like to keep things simple. Many species live in groups that include 10 or fewer porpoises. The harbor porpoise, for example, is so shy that it prefers
living in groups of two to three

3. They Have a Short Lifespan

Unlike their dolphin cousins who can live for several decades in the wild (bottlenose dolphins
can live up to 60
!), most porpoises only live up to 20 years old. The exact lifespan differs among species and highly depends on threats, like predators and bycatch.

4. They're Fast Swimmers

Some species, like the Dall's porpoise, can reach speeds of up to
34 miles per hour
, making them one of the fastest marine mammals. In comparison, bottlenose dolphins can reach speeds of 
22 miles per hour

5. They're Super Shy

While dolphins are known for being super social and playful, porpoises are more shy. You won't see them approaching humans or boats, and they don't typically leap out of the water and put on a show.

How You Can Make a Difference

So, what can you do to help porpoises? Support
sustainable fishing practices
, reduce your use of plastic, and raise awareness about the threats porpoises face. You can also extend your support by donating to organizations dedicated to the conservation of marine life and porpoises, like
Vaquita CPR
. These organizations actively work toward the protection and restoration of porpoise habitats, undertaking research and promoting policies that favor their survival. Remember—every small action can have a big impact. Together, we can make a difference for porpoises and for our planet.