Phocoenidae – Coastal & River porpoises

This family includes the Vaquitas of Mexico: the smallest and most endangered cetaceans

Porpoises are characterized by their compact, robust bodies, rounded heads, and lack of a pronounced beak, distinguishing them from their more slender and beaked dolphin relatives. This family includes several species, each adapted to a range of aquatic environments, from the murky waters of rivers to the vast expanse of open oceans.

Porpoises are highly intelligent, utilizing complex mental maps of their surroundings to navigate their often murky and obstacle-filled habitats. This cognitive ability allows them to remember the locations of feeding grounds, avoid predators, and navigate through challenging environments with remarkable precision. Their spatial memory is particularly crucial for river porpoises, like the critically endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus) and the Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis), which inhabit environments with dynamic changes in water levels and flow.

Communication and echolocation in porpoises differ significantly from those of dolphins. Porpoises do not produce the whistles commonly associated with dolphin communication. Instead, they rely on a sophisticated system of high-frequency clicks. These clicks serve dual purposes: navigation and hunting through echolocation and social communication. For echolocation, porpoises emit rapid clicks that bounce off objects in their environment, allowing them to detect prey, predators, and obstacles even in complete darkness or turbid waters. When communicating with each other, porpoises adjust the pattern and intensity of their clicks. This adaptation ensures their signals remain private, as their main predators, such as killer whales, cannot detect these high-frequency sounds.

The stealth and efficiency of porpoise communication highlight their specialized adaptation to life in diverse and often challenging environments. However, porpoises face significant threats from human activities, including bycatch in fishing nets, habitat degradation, pollution, and the impacts of climate change. Conservation efforts for porpoises focus on protecting their habitats, implementing sustainable fishing practices to reduce bycatch, and raising public awareness about the plight of these often-overlooked cetaceans.