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Stenella attenuata

Stenella attenuata, 4 months fetus, Photo: Michael Lahanas

Superregnum: Eukaryota
Cladus: Unikonta
Cladus: Opisthokonta
Cladus: Holozoa
Regnum: Animalia
Subregnum: Eumetazoa
Cladus: Bilateria
Cladus: Nephrozoa
Superphylum: Deuterostomia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
Megaclassis: Osteichthyes
Cladus: Sarcopterygii
Cladus: Rhipidistia
Cladus: Tetrapodomorpha
Cladus: Eotetrapodiformes
Cladus: Elpistostegalia
Superclassis: Tetrapoda
Cladus: Reptiliomorpha
Cladus: Amniota
Cladus: Synapsida
Cladus: Eupelycosauria
Cladus: Sphenacodontia
Cladus: Sphenacodontoidea
Cladus: Therapsida
Cladus: Theriodontia
Subordo: Cynodontia
Infraordo: Eucynodontia
Cladus: Probainognathia
Cladus: Prozostrodontia
Cladus: Mammaliaformes
Classis: Mammalia
Subclassis: Trechnotheria
Infraclassis: Zatheria
Supercohors: Theria
Cohors: Eutheria
Infraclassis: Placentalia
Cladus: Boreoeutheria
Superordo: Laurasiatheria
Cladus: Euungulata
Ordo: Artiodactyla
Cladus: Artiofabula
Cladus: Cetruminantia
Subordo: Whippomorpha
Infraordo: Cetacea
Cladus: Neoceti
Parvordo: Odontoceti
Cladus: Delphinida
Superfamilia: Delphinoidea

Familia: Delphinidae
Genus: Stenella
Species: Stenella attenuata
Subspecies: S. a. attenuata - S. a. graffmani

Stenella attenuata Gray, 1846


S. a. subspecies A, the off-shore form found in the eastern Pacific
S. a. subspecies B, a form found around the Hawaiian islands.
S. a. graffmani, coastal form found from Mexico to Peru


Stenella attenuata in Mammal Species of the World.
Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mammal Species of the World – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. Third edition. ISBN 0-8018-8221-4.


Smithsonian Institution - North American Mammals: Stenella attenuata

Vernacular names
English: Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
español: Estenela moteada
suomi: Ohjasdelfiini
français: Dauphin tacheté pantropical
magyar: Pettyes delfin
日本語: マダライルカ
svenska: Tygeldelfin
Türkçe: Pantropik benekli yunusu
中文: 热带点斑原海豚

The pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) is a species of dolphin found in all the world's temperate and tropical oceans. The species was beginning to come under threat due to the killing of millions of individuals in tuna purse seines. In the 1980s, the rise of "dolphin-friendly" tuna capture methods saved millions of the species in the eastern Pacific Ocean and it is now one of the most abundant dolphin species in the world.


The species was first described by John Gray in 1846. Gray's initial analysis included the Atlantic spotted dolphin in this species. They are now regarded as separate. Both the genus and specific names come from Latin words meaning thin or thinning.

Two subspecies of the pantropical spotted dolphin are recognized:[4]

S. a. attenuata or offshore pantropical spotted dolphin, found worldwide in tropical waters
S. a. graffmani or coastal pantropical spotted dolphin, found in coastal waters in the eastern tropical Pacific

Another unnamed subspecies, which inhabits inland Hawaiian waters, was recognized in Rice (1998)'s overview of marine mammal taxonomy.[5]

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Pantropical spotted dolphins porpoising

The pantropical spotted dolphin varies significantly in size and coloration throughout its range. The most significant division is between coastal and pelagic varieties. The coastal form is larger and more spotted. (These two forms have been divided into subspecies only in eastern Pacific populations).

Spots are key defining characteristics in adults, though immature individuals are generally uniformly colored and susceptible to confusion with the bottlenose dolphin. Populations around the Gulf of Mexico may be relatively spot-free even in adulthood. In the Atlantic, confusion is possible with the Atlantic spotted dolphin.

The pantropical spotted dolphin is a fairly slender, streamlined animal, with a dark cape and light spots on its body that increase in number and size as it gets older. [6]This species has a long, thin beak and a falcate dorsal fin, which is the thinnest among dolphins.[6] The upper and lower jaws are darkly colored, but are separated by thin, white "lips". The chin, throat, and belly are white to pale grey with a limited number of spots. The flanks are separated into three distinct bands of color — the lightest at the bottom, followed by a thin, grey strip in the middle of the flank, and a dark-grey back. The tall concave dorsal fin is similarly colored. The thick tail stock matches the color of the middle band.

The vocal repertoire of the pantropical spotted dolphin has not been clearly documented. There is no published information about the acoustic signals from South Atlantic Ocean populations of the mammal. [7]

The pantropical spotted dolphin is very active and is prone to making large, splashy leaps from the sea. It is a common breacher and will often clear the water for a second or more. Bow-riding and other play with boats is common.

In the eastern Pacific, the dolphin is often found swimming with yellowfin tuna (hence the problem with dolphin deaths caused by tuna fishing). However, they do not feed on that fish. In fact, the two species have similar diets of small epipelagic fish. In other areas, the species may also feed on squid and crustaceans.

Birth length is 80–90 cm. Adults are about 2.5 m long and weigh 110 to 140 kg. Sexual maturity is reached at 10 years in females and 12 years in males. The average lifespan is around 40 years.
Population and distribution

The pantropical spotted dolphin, as its name implies, is widely distributed around tropical and marine waters from 40°N and 40°S and is one of the most common dolphin species in the Atlantic and Indian oceans.[6]The total world population is in excess of three million — the second-most abundant cetacean after the bottlenose dolphin — of which two million are found in the eastern Pacific. However, this represents a decrease from at least 7 million since the 1950s.

The pantropical spotted dolphin is the most common cetacean species observed within the Agoa Sanctuary, located in the Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean.[6] Because it is common within the sanctuary it is considered a resident species; however, no research has been carried out to estimate its population status and movement patterns between islands.[6]

Centres of highest population density are the shallow warmest waters (water temperature in excess of 25 °C). They also tend to concentrate where a high temperature gradient is found.

Appearances of vagrancy in the Levantine Basin of the Mediterranean Sea through Suez Canal is expected.[8]
Human interaction
Dolphin swimming ahead of the NOAA Ship Rude

The pantropical spotted dolphin's propensity for associating with tuna, particularly in the eastern Pacific, has in recent history been a very real danger. In the 1960s and 1970s, fishermen would capture thousands of dolphin and tuna at once using purse seine nets. The dolphins all died. Over a period of about 25 years, 75% of this region's population, and over half the world's total were wiped out. The issue has received wide public attention. Many major supermarkets have found it economically expedient to use tuna suppliers whose fisherman catch tuna by more discriminatory means, and thus advertise their tuna product as dolphin-friendly. Some such products are approved by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Trust.[9]

Negative impacts from fishing activities remain, despite broad "dolphin-safe" practices]]. Instead of reducing numbers through direct mortalities, fishing activities have disrupted the reproductive output of the northeastern pantropical spotted dolphin. The fishing had a negative impact on calf survival rates and/or birth rates. This could be caused when fishing operations separate mothers from their suckling calves, interfere with the conception or gestation of calves, or a combination of the two.[10]
Major threats

The eastern Pacific populations of pantropical spotted dolphins are divided into 3 units – coastal and 2 offshore populations, northeastern and western-southern.[11] Just under 5 million dolphins were killed between 1959 and 1972. 3 million of these were from the northeastern offshore population unit.[12] Since that time, this subpopulation has been the slowest to recover, if it is truly recovering at all.[13] Natural mortalities are occurring as well, but they are difficult to estimate.[14]

The major threat to Stenella attenuata is individuals killed as by-catch in fisheries.[11] Tuna fishermen follow pantropical spotted dolphins in order to find and catch fish. The height of incidental killings was in the 1960s and 1970s.[2] Tuna fishermen from the 1950s to the 1980s in the eastern Pacific killed massive numbers of dolphins, most of which were offshore spotted dolphins.[2]

Another threat to this species is gillnet fisheries in Australia, North Pacific (central and northern areas), Peru, Ecuador, Japan, and Philippines.[2] Trawls in West Africa and long-lining in the Central Atlantic likewise pose significant threats to these species.[11] Small directed catches in other parts of the world are not as well documented. There is a large-mesh pelagic driftnet fishery of eastern Taiwan where a large number of dolphin killings are suspected.[2] The exact number of deaths due to this fishery is unknown.

Japan catches pantropical spotted dolphins for human consumption.[2] The average catch between 1995 and 2004, was 129 animals annually.[15] Pantropical spotted dolphins are the preferred species for consumption in Taiwan.[2]
Conservation actions

The eastern tropical Pacific and Southeast Asian populations of the pantropical spotted dolphin are listed in Appendix II[16] of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). As the pantropical spotted dolphin can be divided into three subspecies, studies of these distinct populations would be needed to assess conservation efforts.[17]

In addition, the pantropical spotted dolphin is covered by the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Conservation of the Manatee and Small Cetaceans of Western Africa and Macaronesia (Western African Aquatic Mammals MoU) and the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region (Pacific Cetaceans MoU).[18] The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act was established in 1972. U.S. Fishing vessels have since reduced dolphin by-catch deaths by 95%.[19] The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act lists the northeastern and coastal stocks as “Depleted.”[20]

Dolphin deaths have greatly decreased since the establishment of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). The Commission set mortality limits on the international fleet. In 2005, only 373 spotted dolphin deaths were observed.[21]

Dolphin populations are able to grow at 4% per year,[22] but the pantropical spotted dolphin populations did not improve or worsen between 1979 and 2000.[23] The population has not recovered, even though 30 years of management has been in effect.

Although the US and international fishing agencies have reduced dolphin bycatch significantly, the northeastern subpopulation is not showing strong signs of recovery.[13] This lack of recovery of the subpopulations of the pantropical spotted dolphins could be due to the following reasons: calf separation, orphaning, fishery stress, under-reported mortality, and ecosystem change.[2] Observed deaths of these dolphins could be under-reported because small vessels do not have observers, observers do not see the net constantly at all times, injured dolphins die after observation, and dead individuals are not always reported.[13]


Mead, J. G.; Brownell, R. L. Jr. (2005). "Order Cetacea". In Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 723–743. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
Kiszka, J.; Braulik, G. (2018). "Stenella attenuata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2018: e.T20729A50373009. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T20729A50373009.en. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
"Appendices | CITES". Retrieved 14 January 2022.
"List of Marine Mammal Species and Subspecies|May 1 2022". Society for Marine Mammalogy. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
Rice, DW (1998). Marine mammals of the world: Systematics and distribution. Society for Marine Mammalogy. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-891276-03-3.
Courtin, Baptiste (April 2022). "Insights on the residency status and inter-island movement patterns of pantropical spotted dolphins Stenella attenuata in the Agoa Sanctuary, Eastern Caribbean". [Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals]. 17: 1427–1471 – via
Pires, Clara R.; Rossi-Santos, Marcos R.; Paro, Alexandre D.; Wedekin, Leonardo L. (1 May 2021). "Whistles of the pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) in Santos Basin, western South Atlantic Ocean". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 149 (5): 3241–3249. doi:10.1121/10.0004950. ISSN 0001-4966. PMID 34241090. S2CID 235775950.
Update on the Cetacean Fauna of the Mediterranean Levantine Basin
The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of North American Mammals: A Comprehensive Guide to Mammals of North America. MobileReference. 2009. ISBN 9781605012797.
University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (24 November 2008). "Dolphin Population Stunted by Fishing Activities". Newswise, Inc. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
Perrin, William F. "Stenella attenuata." Mammalian species(2001): 1-8.
Wade, P. R. "Revised estimates of incidental kill of dolphins(Delphinidae) by the purse-seine tuna fishery in the eastern Tropical Pacific, 1959-1972." Fishery Bulletin 93.2 (1995): 345-354
Gerrodette, Tim, and Jaume Forcada. "Non-recovery of two spotted and spinner dolphin populations in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean." Marine Ecology Progress Series 291 (2005): 1-21.
Perrin, William F. "Pantropical spotted dolphin: Stenella attenuata." Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (Second Edition). 2009. 819-821.
Kasuya, Toshio. "Japanese whaling and other cetacean fisheries (10 pp)." Environmental Science and Pollution Research-International 14.1 (2007): 39-48.
"Appendix II Archived 11 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine" of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). As amended by the Conference of the Parties in 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008. Effective: 5 March 2009.
Convention on Migratory Species page on the Pantropical spotted dolphin Archived 3 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Conservation of the Manatee and Small Cetaceans of Western Africa and Macaronesia
Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region
Baur, DONALD C., MICHAEL J. Bean, and MICHAEL L. Gosliner. "The laws governing marine mammal conservation in the United States." Conservation and management of marine mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC (1999): 48-86.
Read, Andrew J., and Paul R. Wade. "Status of marine mammals in the United States." Conservation Biology 14.4 (2000): 929-940.
Bayliff, W. H. "Organization, functions, and achievements of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC Special Report No. 13)." Retrieved form Google Scholar (2001).
Reilly, STEPHEN B., and J. Barlow. "Rates of increase in dolphin population size." Fishery Bulletin 84.3 (1986): 527-533.

Lennert-Cody, Cleridy E., Stephen T. Buckland, and FERNANDA FC MARqUES. "Trends in dolphin abundance estimated from fisheries data: a cautionary note." Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 3.3 (2001): 305-320.

Further reading

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin by William F. Perrin in Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals pp. 865–867. ISBN 978-0-12-551340-1
Whales Dolphins and Porpoises, Mark Carwardine, Dorling Kindersley Handbooks, ISBN 0-7513-2781-6
National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World, Reeves, Stewart, Clapham and Powell, ISBN 0-375-41141-0
Variation of spotted and spinner porpoise (genus Stenella) in the Eastern Pacific and Hawaii William F. Perrin

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