Short-beaked Common Dolphin

RS Common Dolphin Profile

  • Scientific name: Delphinus delphis
  • Also know as: Common Dolphin, Saddleback Dolphin, Criss-cross Dolphin, Cape Dolphin
  • Size: Up to 8ft in length.
  • IUCN Status
    • Global: LC (Least Concern)
    • Europe: DD (Data Deficient
  • Distribution: Found all around the world in warm to temperate waters. Distribution extends to the waters around the UK.
  • Feeds on: Fish and squid.
  • Description: A dolphin species with a sleek, streamlined body. Colouration is mostly grey with a distinctive pattern of a black/dark grey cape and a white underside with a yellow/light grey hourglass pattern on the flanks (many of these features give this species some of its alternative names). Mouth is full of small, sharp teeth.

The short-beaked common dolphin is a medium-sized dolphin species which has a wide distribution around the world. It is found in European and British waters, and is noted for its active behaviour and being found in huge pods, sometimes containing thousands of dolphins.


Short-beaked Common Dolphin Distribution

World-wide distribution of the short-beaked common dolphin.

This species has a wide distribution being found across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with further populations off the coast of Australia and Asia. In European waters the short-beaked common dolphin is widespread being found from cold Scandinavian waters (although not in Arctic waters) down to the northern coast of Africa. They are also found in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. They are equally happy living and feeding near to land masses and many hundreds of miles out to sea in the open ocean.

Life Cycle and Feeding

Short-beaked common dolphins are social creatures which live in groups which can range in number from hundreds to as many as tens of thousands of individual dolphins. They are fast and active swimmers which can often be seen jumping from the water and riding the bow waves of ships, although they are also capable of diving to depths in excess of 150 metres.

Common dolphin HMS Liverpool

A common dolphin riding the waves created by the Royal Navy’s Type 42 destroyer HMS Liverpool.

They will feed on any kind of small to medium sized fish and squid which they find. Short-beaked common dolphins need to be at least ten years old before they can reproduce with the females usually carrying a single calf which remains with its mother for several years. This species is thought to have a lifespan of 35 to 40 years.

Species Confusion

For such a widely distributed species the common dolphin has caused a good deal of taxonomic confusion within the scientific community. Until 1994 there was only a single species of common dolphin, but it was then discovered that there were in fact two distinct species: the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and the long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis). It is the short-beaked variety which is found in British waters, while the long-beaked common dolphin is only found in warmer waters around the equator.

Conservation Status

The short-beaked common dolphin is considered to be abundant and is classed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) on a world-wide basis. However, the outlook for this species is not as positive in European waters. An overall lack of research means that it is classed as Data Deficient in European waters generally, and it is classed as Endangered in the Mediterranean. It is believed that a combination of climate change, pollution and bycatch in fisheries has led to the short-beaked common dolphin declining in numbers significantly in the Mediterranean in the last few decades. It is hoped that international collaboration to create protected areas may help the numbers of this species recover in the coming years. The UK banned pair trawling for bass in its own territorial waters due to the bycatch of dolphin species.

Short-beaked common dophins have historically been hunted by a number of nations such as Japan and in areas such as the Black Sea, although they are now commercially harvested in only very small numbers, and EU legislation now bans the capture or trade of this species within Europe.

Merlin Helicopter and Trafalgar-class submarine

A simulated ‘war game’ in which a Merlin helicopter used a powerful sonar dipper to locate a Trafalgar-class submarine off the Cornish coast was seen as being responsible for the mass stranding of dolphins [file photo].

There can also be issues with the powerful sonar used by military vessels and helicopters causing mass stranding of short-beaked common dolphins. In June 2008 around fifty short-beaked common dolphins beached themselves near Falmouth Harbour, Cornwall with around half of the dolphins dying and the rest being rescued and returned to the sea. A large-scale military operation had taken place in the vicinity shortly before the stranding, featuring Royal Navy vessels and ships from a number of other navies. It is believed the powerful sonar which is lowered into the sea from a helicopter to hunt submarines may have played a key role in confusing or scaring the dolphins and forcing them into the harbour where they then beached themselves.

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