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Overview

Brief Summary

Description

"Pygmy killer whales are among the least-known cetaceans. These black, white-lipped whales have rarely been kept in captivity: from time to time a few stranded animals have been kept for a few days. The scientific history of this species says much about how difficult it is to build up knowledge about cetaceans. A skull from an unknown location was mentioned in the scientific literature in 1827. In 1875, another skull was described and the species was named. In 1952, a ""strange dolphin"" was collected in Japan that proved to be Feresa attenuata. Unfortunately, the scientist who received the specimen got it in pieces, but it provided the first complete skeleton and a hint as to what the animal looked like. Finally, in 1963, several more pygmy killer whales were found in Japan. Thereafter, sightings around the world established that these whales live in temperate and tropical waters, may be aggressive, and prey on small dolphins, fishes, and cephalopods. Information from strandings has provided limited data on size and growth. Pygmy killer whales have been seen swimming alone and in large groups of up to 1,000. Tuna fishermen report seeing groups that average about 25 individuals."

Links:
Mammal Species of the World
  • Original description: Gray, 1875.  J. Mus. Godeffroy.  Hamburg, 8:184.
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Biology

The quick and lively pygmy killer whale is most commonly found in herds of 12 to 50 individuals, although great herds of 100 or more have also been encountered (2). They are known to be playful, having been observed riding the waves around the bow of a boat, leaping high out the water and spyhopping, the act of raising the head and sometimes the upper body vertically out of the water (2). Pygmy killer whales can also be wary of boats and will cluster together when fleeing a disturbance (4). Their feeding habits are not well known but the remains of small fish and cephalopods have been found in the stomachs of stranded pygmy killer whales and, in behaviour that lends a little truth to their name, they are suspected to occasionally chase, attack and even eat dolphins (2).
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Description

Contrary to its name, the little-known pygmy killer whale is actually a member of the dolphin family (2). Until 1952 the pygmy killer whale was only known from two skulls collected in the 19th century, and while more specimens have been collected since it remains one of the least known of the small cetaceans (2). It has a slender, cigar-shaped body that tapers to the tail fin, with a round, blunt head that lacks the beak of many dolphin species (2) (4). The pygmy killer whale is dark grey to black, with lighter sides and a dark 'cape' that extends down the back. Its lips are edged with white and the moderately long flippers are rounded at the tips (2).
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Distribution

occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: Apparently widely distributed in tropical and warm subtropical waters; has been encountered off Florida and the West Indies, in the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, southeastern Atlantic Ocean, and tropical Pacific. Frequently seen in the eastern tropical Pacific, and near Hawaii and Japan (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983).

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in all oceans
  • UNESCO-IOC Register of Marine Organisms
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Range Description

This is a tropical/subtropical species that inhabits oceanic waters around the globe generally between 40°N and 35°S. It does not generally approach close to shore, except in some areas where deep, clear waters are very close to the coast (such as around oceanic archipelagos like Hawaii). Reports of its occurrence in the Mediterranean Sea, while common in the literature, are not supported by authenticated records. It is also doubtful whether it occurs regularly in the Red Sea or Persian Gulf (Leatherwood et al. 1991). A few high-latitude strandings and sightings are thought to be extralimital records, and are generally associated with incursions of warm water (Ross and Leatherwood 1994; Donohue and Perryman 2002; Williams et al. 2002).
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Geographic Range

Feresa attenuata is found around Japan, Hawaii and in the warmer eastern areas of the North Pacific Ocean. It is also found in the West Indian area and around tropical western Africa in the Atlantic Ocean as well as in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. (Ridgway, 1994; Tinker, 1988;   http://library.advanced.org/2605/pygkill.htm, 1999).

Biogeographic Regions: indian ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )

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Range

Occurs in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, generally not ranging north of 40°N or south of 35°S (2) (5). Sightings of the pygmy killer whale have been most frequent in the eastern tropical Pacific, the Hawaiian Archipelago and off the coasts of Japan (2).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Physical Description

Feresa attenuata is very similar in appearance to melon-headed whales and to juvenile false killer whales. From a distance it is very difficult to tell these three apart. The shape of the head, the dorsal fin and the flippers of pygmy killer whales are different from the other two. The head of Feresa attenuata is rounded and lacks a beak. They have an underslung jaw and white lips, and usually a white patch on the tip of the lower jaw. The skull is asymmetrical and the right jaw is smaller and usually has one less tooth than the left jaw. The teeth are large and conical. There are usually 8 to 11 pairs of teeth in the upper jaw and 11 to 13 pairs of teeth in the lower jaw.

Pygmy killer whales have a sub-triangular, long based, high dorsal fin with a tip that points backward. The dorsal fin is located near the center of the body and lacks rigidity, often inclining to the side. The flippers of pygmy killer whales are moderate in length and have rounded tips.

The body of Feresa attenuata is slender, though the midsection forward is slightly more robust than the midsection back. Pygmy killer whales are not whale sized at all; rather, they are average sized dolphins and part of the family Delphinidae. An adult ranges in length from 2.1 to 2.6 meters and weighs between 110 and 170 kg. The coloring is dark gray to black with some paler markings on the underside, as well as some white on the belly. Feresa attenuata has a groove on the skin of its belly that extends from anterior to the umbilicus to the anus. In both males and females this groove contains the umbilicus, the anus and the genitals. (Balcomb, 1987; Ridgway, 1994; Tinker, 1988;   http://www.cetacea.org/pkiller.htm, 1999;   http://www.sci.tamucc.edu/tmmsn/29Species/pygmykiller.html, 1999;   http://www.gomr.mms.gov/homepg/regulate/environ/marmam/pygmy.html, 1999;   http://library.advanced.org/2605/pygkill.htm, 1999).

Range mass: 110 to 170 kg.

Range length: 2.1 to 2.6 m.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

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Size

Length: 270 cm

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Size in North America

Sexual Dimorphism: Males may be longer than females.

Length:
Range: 2-2.6 m

Weight:
Average: 140 kg
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat Type: Marine

Comments: Widely distributed in tropical oceans.

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tropical and subtropical, oceanic
  • UNESCO-IOC Register of Marine Organisms
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Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
The pygmy killer whale occurs in deep, warm waters, generally beyond the edge of the continental shelf, and rarely close to shore (except near some oceanic island groups where the water is deep and clear). This species is mainly tropical, but occasionally strays into warm temperate regions.

Little is known of the diet of this species, although it is known to eat fish and squid. It has occasionally been recorded attacking dolphins, at least those involved in tuna fishery interactions in the eastern tropical Pacific (Perryman and Foster 1980).

Systems
  • Marine
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Feresa attenuata is primarily a species of tropical waters, though it has been spotted in cooler waters off the west coast of Southern Africa and Peru. It prefers sub-tropical and tropical waters usually in deep water in the open oceans and is rarely found in closed water. Pygmy killer whales are believed to be non-migratory, but little is known about their migratory habits. (Ridgway, 1994; Tinker, 1988;   http://www.cetacea.org/pkiller.htm, 1999).

Habitat Regions: tropical ; saltwater or marine

Aquatic Biomes: pelagic

  • Ridgway, S., R. Harrison. 1994. Handbook of Marine Mammals. San Diego, CA: Academic Press Inc..
  • Tinker, S. 1988. Whales of the World. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bess Press, Inc..
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Depth range based on 61 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 60 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): 15.012 - 28.879
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.045 - 7.309
  Salinity (PPS): 32.337 - 36.385
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.595 - 5.969
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.063 - 0.866
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.787 - 6.989

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): 15.012 - 28.879

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.045 - 7.309

Salinity (PPS): 32.337 - 36.385

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.595 - 5.969

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.063 - 0.866

Silicate (umol/l): 0.787 - 6.989
 
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.

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The pygmy killer whale inhabits deep, warm waters, and is rarely seen close to shore except around oceanic islands (6).
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Migration

Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

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Trophic Strategy

Comments: Reported to herd and attack other small cetaceans in the eastern tropical Pacific (see IUCN 1991).

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Food Habits

The diet of Feresa attenuata includes squid, octopus, and large fish, e.g., tuna and dolphin fish. Pygmy killer whales are also known to occasionally attack groups of small cetaceans, for instance other dolphins. (  http://www.cetacea.org/pkiller.htm, 1999;   http://www.sci.tamucc.edu/tmmsn/29Species/pygmykiller.html, 1999).

Animal Foods: fish; mollusks

Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore , Molluscivore )

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Associations

Ecosystem Roles

Pygmy killer whales are important predators of fish and cephalopods.

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Predation

Little is known about predators of pygmy killer whales. Their large size and aggressiveness makes them invulnerable to many predators, but perhaps not to large sharks or larger cetaceans, such as orcas.

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Known prey organisms

Feresa attenuata preys on:
Actinopterygii
Mollusca

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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General Ecology

Commonly in herds of 50 or fewer individuals, sometimes up to several hundred (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983).

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Communication and Perception

Feresa attenuata make sounds similar to the whistles and clicks of bottlenose dolphins, as well as growling sounds through their blowhole.

Communication Channels: acoustic

Perception Channels: visual ; acoustic

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Life Expectancy

Lifespan/Longevity

Longevity in this species is poorly understood.

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Reproduction

There is no information on mating in pygmy killer whales.

Little is known about the reproduction of Feresa attenuata. It is believed that males are sexually mature when they are greater than 2.16m in length and females when they are greater than 2.21m in length. The summer months are probably when most of the calves are born. Generally one calf is born. (Ridgway, 1994; Tinker, 1988;   http://www.anca.gov.au/plants/threaten/plans/action_plans/cetaceans/whaleap5p.htm, 1999).

Breeding interval: Breeding occurs once yearly, although individual females may give birth less frequently.

Breeding season: The breeding season is unknown.

Average number of offspring: 1.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); viviparous

Females care for and nurse their young until they reach independence. Little is known about the details of parentl care in these whales.

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)

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Feresa attenuata

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


No available public DNA sequences.

Download FASTA File
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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Feresa attenuata

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

National NatureServe Conservation Status

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: NU - Unrankable

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
DD
Data Deficient

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2008

Assessor/s
Taylor, B.L., Baird, R., Barlow, J., Dawson, S.M., Ford, J., Mead, J.G., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Wade, P. & Pitman, R.L.

Reviewer/s
Hammond, P.S. & Perrin, W.F. (Cetacean Red List Authority)

Contributor/s

Justification
This species is naturally uncommon. The combination of potential declines driven by impacts from high intensity anthropogenic sounds and bycatch in fisheries is believed sufficient that a 30% global reduction over three generations cannot be ruled out.

History
  • 1996
    Data Deficient
  • 1994
    Insufficiently Known
    (Groombridge 1994)
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Feresa attenuata is listed in Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Those listed in Appendix II, as stated on the CITES web site, are "species which although not necessarily threatened with extinction may become so unless trade is subject to strict regulation." As well as non-threatened species that must be subject to regulation in order to control threatened species. (  http://www.wcmc.org.uk/CITES/english/index.html, 1999).

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: appendix ii

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: data deficient

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Status

Classified as Data Deficient (DD) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
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Population

Population
Although there is little information on the population biology of this species, the pygmy killer whale appears to be naturally uncommon. Wade and Gerrodette (1993) estimated that there were about 38,900 (CV=31%) of these whales in the eastern tropical Pacific. There are estimated to be 817 (CV=112%) in the Hawaiian portion of the US EEZ, and 408 (CV=60%) in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Barlow 2006; Mullin and Fulling 2004).

Population Trend
Unknown
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Threats

Comments: No known major threats (IUCN 1991).

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Major Threats
Because of their relatively low abundance, even small takes in localized areas could be significant. Although there is considerable controversy regarding the absolute level of declines, there is good evidence of large-scale reductions in many predatory fish populations (e.g., Baum et al. 2003, 2005; Sibert et al. 2006; Polacheck 2006) and over-fishing and collapse of several important “prey” fish stocks world-wide (e.g., Jackson et al. 2001). The effects of such fish population reductions and subsequent ecosystem changes on world-wide populations of pygmy killer whales are unknown but could result in population declines.

Predicted impacts of global climate change on the marine environment may affect pygmy killer whales, although the nature of impacts is unclear (Learmonth et al. 2006).

This species, like beaked whales, is likely to be vulnerable to loud anthropogenic sounds, such as those generated by navy sonar and seismic exploration (Cox et al. 2006) and have been a part of multi-species unusual stranding events in Taiwan (Wang and Yang, 2006).

Pygmy killer whales have been killed directly in both harpoon and driftnet fisheries (Caribbean islands, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Indonesia) and incidentally in various types of fishing gear (most areas of the species’ range).

A few individuals are known to be taken in drives and in driftnets in various regions, most notably Japan and Sri Lanka (Ross and Leatherwood 1994). Reports on the small-cetacean fisheries of St Vincent and Lamalera suggest that pygmy killer whales form a very small proportion of the catch and that catches probably have little impact on the subpopulations in those areas. In Sri Lanka, there is mortality of this species due to harpooning of dolphins for use as bait on long-lines for sharks, billfish, and other oceanic fishes (Ross and Leatherwood 1994).

Although they comprise less than 2% of all cetaceans in monitored by-catches in gillnet fisheries in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka and in villages on the south-west coast of Sri Lanka, this may amount to 300 - 900 pygmy killer whales each year (Ross and Leatherwood 1994). The numbers of animals killed incidentally in net fisheries, such as those in Sri Lanka, may be much higher than is so far documented, because monitoring of these widespread activities is incomplete. In the long term, such takes may have a significant impact on pygmy killer whales where their distribution overlaps with extensive gillnetting operations (Ross and Leatherwood 1994). Small incidental catches are known in fisheries in other areas including the Philippines and Taiwan (Ross and Leatherwood 1994, Dolar 1994, J. Wang pers. comm. 2007).

Evidence from stranded individuals of several similar species indicates that they have swallowed discarded plastic items, which may eventually lead to death (e.g. Scott et al. 2001); this species may also be at risk.

This species does not appear to be particularly abundant anywhere that it has been sighted. In Hawaii, subpopulations appear to be small, and this, along with their limited movements, suggests the species may be particularly vulnerable to human impacts regionally.
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While the pygmy killer whale is not believed to be seriously threatened at present, its naturally low abundance means that even small takes could have a significant impact on local populations (7). Pygmy killer whales are captured intentionally in fisheries in St Vincent and Indonesia (2), where the whale meat may be consumed and the oil used for cooking and medicinal purposes (8), and in Sri Lanka, pygmy killer whales are harpooned and used as bait in long-line fisheries for sharks, billfish and other oceanic fishes. Pygmy killer whales are also caught incidentally in many areas (2).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
The species is listed on Appendix II of CITES. Research is needed to determine the impact of potential threats on this species.
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Conservation

The pygmy killer whale is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that any international trade in this species should be carefully regulated (3). There are not known to be any other measures in place at present to protect this enigmatic and intriguing ocean mammal.
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Uses

Comments: No specific fishery for this species, though sometimes included among cetaceans driven ashore by Japanese fishermen (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983). Sometimes taken in general small cetacean fisheries in several parts of the range; used for human consumption and for oil for cooking and medicinal purposes (IUCN 1991).

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Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no negative impacts of pygmy killer whales on humans.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Pygmy killer whales are important members of pelagic ecosystems.

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Risks

IUCN Red List Category

Data Deficient (DD)
  • IUCN (2008) Cetacean update of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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Wikipedia

Pygmy killer whale

Pygmy killer whale!<-- This template has to be "warmed up" before it can be used, for some reason -->

The pygmy killer whale (Feresa attenuata) is a small, rarely-seen cetacean of the oceanic dolphin family (Delphinidae). It derives its common name from sharing some physical characteristics with the orca ("killer whale".) It is the smallest species that has "whale" in its common name. In fact, "killer" may be more apt in the case of the pygmy killer whale than its larger cousin. When a number of Pygmy Killers were brought into captivity in Hawaii and South Africa they were extremely aggressive—even killing one another. A pod captured in Japan did not display such aggression.

Until the early 1950s the pygmy killer whale was known only from two skulls kept at the British Museum. It had been described by John Gray in 1874. In 1954, Japanese cetologist Munesato Yamada published accounts of a "rare porpoise" discovered in 1952 by whale hunters working from Honshū. He wrote that the individuals he examined had skulls matching those in the museum and that the body had features similar to the killer whale, and proposed the common name lesser (or pygmy) killer whale. Despite its name and features, the pygmy killer whale is not closely related to the orca.

The scientific species descriptor attenuata is Latin for 'tapering' and refers to the gradual narrowing from the head to the tail fin.

Contents

Description

The pygmy killer is an average-sized dolphin (a little larger and heavier than a grown man) and may easily be confused at sea with other species, in particular the melon-headed whale. The body is robust and dark-colored. The cape is particularly dark. The head is rounded without a beak. The sides are lighter and the belly is often white. Several individuals have been seen with a white lining around the mouth and chin. The dorsal fin is tall and slightly falcate.

The pygmy avoids human contact. Some spy-hopping, breaching and other active behavior has been recorded but it is not an acrobatic animal.

These dolphins always move in groups, usually of 10 to 30, but occasionally much larger.

Data from strandings, which seem to be common in the species, indicates a diet of cephalopods and small fish. They have been observed attacking, killing and eating other cetacean species such as the Common Dolphin.

Population and distribution

The only population estimate is of 38,900 individuals in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.[1] However the species has a wide distribution in tropical and sub-tropical waters world-wide. They are sighted regularly off Hawaii and Japan. Appearance in bycatch suggest a year-round presence in the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka and the Lesser Antilles. In the Atlantic individuals have been observed as far north as South Carolina on the west coast and Senegal on the east. The species is purely oceanic.


Footnotes

  1. ^ Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, Mark Carwardine (1995) ISBN 0-7513-2781-6

References

  1. Taylor, B.L., Baird, R., Barlow, J., Dawson, S.M., Ford, J., Mead, J.G., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Wade, P. & Pitman, R.L. (2008). Feresa attenuata. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 24 March 2009. Database entry includes justification for why this species is listed as data deficient
  2. National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World ISBN 0-375-41141-0
  3. Article Pygmy Killer Whale Meghan Donahue and Wayne Perryman pps 1009-1010 in Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (1998) ISBN 0-12-551340-2
  4. Estimates of cetacean abundance and distribution in the eastern tropical Pacific P.R. Wade and T. Gerrodette (1993) Rep. Int. Whal. Comm. 43, 477-493


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