Pygmy Killer Whale

Pygmy Killer Whale: Feressa attenuata

IUCN status: data deficient

Status and Distribution summary:

Naturally scarce with an oceanic distribution. Found over deep waters of tropical to warm temperate waters. No reliable estimates of populations.


Not known to be specifically hunted, but is caught up in drive hunts of other species, notably in Japanese waters.

Other threats:

Marked over-fishing of its prey (predatory fish) could drive population declines. Some evidence of by-catch in drift nets. This might be quite significant but monitoring is poor. Has mass stranded in response to military sonar activity.

Where it is seen:

In deep waters of Southern Biscay.

Frequency of sightings:

Very rare. Only recorded on three occasions.


Very small 2.1-2.6m

Robust , dark body with hard to see black cape.

Very rounded, almost bulbous head with no beak.

Often white on lips and chin. Some variable whitish marks on underside.

Relatively tall falcate dorsal fin located midway along the  back.


Difficult to approach.

Hunts collectively and predates on predatory fish and sometimes other dolphins and young of small whale species.

Often "chorus lines" (swim in line abreast) synchronously.

Occasionally breaches, spyhops and lobtails but generally not acrobatic.

Brings head completely clear of water when surfacing.

Confusion Species:

  • Melon-headed Whale - this is by far the most similar species but the only record in the transect area is of two stranded animals near La Rochelle in 2005. Confusingly their melon is smaller than that of Pygmy killer, they have no white on their chin and are likely to be seen in much larger groups.
  • False Killer Whale - though this is darker, larger and has no white on lips.