American Oceans
false killer whales

False Killer Whale

The false killer whale is scientifically known as Pseudorca crassidens, which means “thick tooth.” The false killer whale is a large member of the oceanic dolphin family.

This naturally rare dolphin species is commonly found in open waters and warm climates, particularly near the Hawaiian islands. Because of their deep-diving preference, some facts about the migratory and behavioral habits of false killer whales are still a mystery to scientists.

Characteristics & Appearance

Weight & Length

One of the largest species of toothed whales, males can grow up to 20 feet in length and around 3,000 pounds. A female false killer whale typically grow to 14 feet in length and 2,650 pounds. The false killer whale is the third-largest toothed whale in the dolphin family, behind the orca (killer whale) and the pilot whale.

pod of false killer whales

Physical Characteristics & Color

False killer whales are easy to identify by their long, sleek, black, or dark gray-colored bodies. They have distinctive narrow heads with a rounded, overhanging snout and no pronounced beak. False killer whales are recognizable by a small, tapered dorsal fin in the center of their backs. The false killer whale also has curved pectoral flippers that create an “s” shaped curve near their bodies.

Sometimes confused with pygmy killer whales, false killer whales can be identified by their larger size and the unique, curved flippers distinct to their species. In contrast to their dark bodies, false killer whales are lighter on their underside with markings in light gray or white. This paler patch can sometimes form a “w” shape on their chest.

The false killer whale has cone-shaped teeth with 14-21 teeth in the upper jaw and 16-24 in the lower jaw.

Lifespan & Reproduction

Female false killer whales mature and begin reproducing at around 10 years of age. While both male and female false killer whales have a life expectancy of 55 years, females typically live longer than males. Female false killer whales can live up to 63 years of age, and males can live up to the age of 58.

The gestation period for false killer whales lasts between 15  to 16 months. The calves are born at around 6 to 6.5 feet in length. They remain with their mother, feeding on her milk, for up to two years. A mother false killer whale may only birth a calf every 6 – 7 years before entering a menopausal phase at around 44 years of age. These older females remain within the pod group, helping to care for younger calves.

diving false killer whale

Habitat

Where does the False Killer Whale live?

False killer whales are typically found in temperate, open waters. One of the largest populations of false killer whales is situated off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands.

This relatively shallow dwelling pod is now declining but has been a vital source for much of researchers’ scientific knowledge on the species.

They have also been spotted offshore near Mexico, Costa Rica, and Japan. False killer whales are deep-diving dolphins and can be found at a maximum depth of 15,000 ft (4,700 m). People have spotted false killer whales further north and south but typically remain in deep-ocean, tropical waters.

False killer whales can form large pods of up to 500 individuals and break off into smaller pods of 15 – 25. Like other species of dolphins, these creatures often form strong, family-like social bonds with other individuals in their pods, as well as with dolphins of different species. They are known to interact non-aggressively with bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales.

Food & Diet

What does the False Killer Whale eat?

False killer whales typically feed on squid and fish. They eat five percent of their own body weight daily. They are also known to feed on other, smaller dolphins, which can sometimes include their own species.

When available, they may also feed on larger prey such as humpback whales, juvenile sharks, and sperm whales, although scientists cannot know whether they eat them or are cutting down the competition.

False killer whales work together with their pods to hunt for squid and fish. They are partial to large fish native to the tropical waters offshore Hawaii, such as tuna, mahi-mahi, sailfish, and wahoo. The pods hunt and forage collaboratively and share their prey. Food is shared among one another, and false killer whales have even been known to offer a bite to humans whom they see fishing, diving, or snorkeling.

Pseudorca crassidens

Threats & Predators

Human Threats

Fishing operations are one of the biggest threats to false killer whales and are likely to become tangled in fishing nets. Entanglement is a significant threat to them as it can cause drowning or loss of circulation. Swallowing fishing hooks can also be harmful to their digestive tracts.

Due to commercial overfishing issues in their primary habitats, false killer whales also face the challenge of having less and less to eat.

Previously, false killer whales were considered to be more capable of adapting to life in captivity than other dolphins. Many aquariums around the world have now banned the captivity of cetaceans.

Climate Change & Global Warming

To protect false killer whales, reduce, reuse, recycle. Plastic in the ocean is a huge threat to this naturally rare species. The steady accumulation of garbage in the oceans poses a threat to all wildlife, including the future of false killer whales and their prey.

Climate change can also affect food availability. This can be especially harmful to this species as they already face scarcity in prey due to commercial fishing of some of their main food sources, such as tuna.

Predators

False killer whales are top predators and have no known major predator of their own. Besides humans and global warming, their biggest threat is their slow reproductive rate as well as their naturally rare status.

Other Threats

These group-dwelling dolphins tend to become beached. They are at risk for mass strandings, sometimes resulting in an entire pod becoming stranded. Mass strandings are common because the species tend to hunt in larger family groups.

False killer whales are also vulnerable to underwater noise pollution caused by human navigation. They can become disoriented, which can lead to the threat of entanglement in fishing equipment. Consuming plastic is also a significant threat to these creatures’ health and reproductive success.

false killer whale in aquarium

Conservation Status

There are an estimated 60,000 false killer whales in the oceans. However, we do not know the exact number as this species has been difficult for scientists to study with certainty. False killer whales are listed as near threatened by the IUCN Red List.

The main population of false killer whales is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The species is included in the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region.

Fun Facts About False Killer Whale

  • False killer whales are nighttime hunters and like to forage in groups, sharing their prey.
  • They sometimes trick fishing boats and feed on fish on fishing lines or in nets. This sometimes results in the dolphins themselves getting caught in the netting.
  • False killer whales have been known to feed on other, smaller dolphins.

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