A group of bottlenose dolphins

7 Types of Dolphin Everyone Should Know

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Did you know that there are 49 different types of dolphin? When many people picture a dolphin, they simply think of the common bottlenose dolphin. However, this is a large, diverse group of marine mammals. There are seven species in particular everyone should know about, from the bottlenose to pink river dolphins to killer whales. 

1. Bottlenose Dolphin

The most well-known type of dolphin in the world is the bottlenose dolphin. If you’ve seen a dolphin in a movie or at an aquarium, chances are it was a bottlenose. These are one of the most common types of dolphin and one of the largest, growing up to 14 feet long. 

Bottlenose dolphins are highly intelligent and playful, which is part of why they’re often selected for aquarium acrobatics shows. Like the rest of their species, bottlenose dolphins have a unique ability called echolocation, which allows them to navigate using sound waves. 

Bottlenose dolphins are not endangered as of 2023. There are an estimated 600,000 of them roaming the oceans today. They can live about 40 to 60 years and generally reach mating age around 5 years old. They’re usually found in coastal waters where they hunt fish and squid. 

2. Striped Dolphin

Striped dolphins are named for their stunning streaked markings along their sides, often dark gray or black in color. They’re one of several oceanic types of dolphin, meaning they primarily live in open ocean waters. Striped dolphins especially prefer warm or tropical areas of the ocean. 

One trait unique to striped dolphins is an activity called roto-tailing. Striped dolphins are often seen leaping high out of the water then quickly rotating their tail. It makes for some impressive acrobatics! 

These dolphins are a bit smaller than the bottlenose, typically only around 9 feet long. They have an average lifespan of about 60 years. Like many other types of dolphins, they mainly eat fish and squid, although striped dolphins also hunt krill, crustaceans and octopus. As of 2023, striped dolphins are not considered endangered. 

3. Amazon River Dolphin

One of the most unique types of dolphins is the Amazon River dolphin, known for its pale pink skin. These dolphins are only found in South America, specifically the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. Unlike many other types of dolphins, this species prefers freshwater, meaning they stay in rivers and lakes rather than the ocean. 

Amazon River dolphins can grow to about 9 feet long and have a comparatively short lifespan at about 30 years. The most unique feature of this type of dolphin, their pink skin, is actually not something they’re born with. They’re born with gray skin, but engage in such rough play and fighting that their skin gradually turns gray from scarring. Males tend to be more pink than females. 

4. Orca (Killer Whale)

Many people will be surprised to learn that Orcas or “killer whales” are actually dolphins. They are the largest member of the dolphin family, growing up to 26 feet long. Orcas are one of the most dangerous predators in the ocean (to other marine life, not humans – there is only one documented incident of an orca attacking a human). 

Orcas are smarter and faster than sharks, making them superior hunters. Plus, they’re more social. They use their smarts and communication skills to hunt in pods much like wolves do on land. In fact, they’ve even developed hunting strategies. For instance, orcas know how to push seals off of ice sheets to get them into the water. 

Orcas as a species are not endangered, but one specific population of them is. The Southern Resident population of killer whales is highly endangered with only about 75 remaining. 

5. Hector’s Dolphin

The Hector’s dolphin is one of the smallest types of dolphin, growing to only about 5 feet long. They are only found in the waters around New Zealand and tend to live in smaller pods. They have a uniquely rounded off nose, much like that of an orca. Their coloring is unique, as well, with long, wide streaks of black and a white belly. 

Hector’s dolphins as a whole species are considered vulnerable, meaning they could become endangered. There are somewhere between 11,900 and 18,400 in the world. One subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin, the Maui dolphin, is critically endangered with no more than 64 individuals remaining. The comparatively short lifespan of this species, around 20 years, makes it even more difficult to grow and maintain the population. 

6. Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Atlantic spotted dolphins are a lot like bottlenose dolphins, but they’re a bit thinner and smaller and have unique light gray speckles all over their bodies. They grow to about 7 feet long and live in pods of up to 200 dolphins. As their name suggests, they’re found throughout the Atlantic ocean. 

Atlantic spotted dolphins are actually born plain gray, much like a bottlenose. They develop their spots as they get older. They’re a very playful, active and friendly species and often enjoy “surfing” in the waves boats create. As of 2023, scientists don’t have enough data to determine whether or not they are endangered, but they are a protected species. 

7. Electra Dolphin

Electra dolphins have one of the most unique appearances on this list. Sometimes called melon-headed whales, these dolphins look a lot like miniature orcas. They have a round, blunted nose that resembles that of a whale more than a dolphin. Their bodies look a lot like bottlenose dolphins’, though. 

Electra dolphins grow to about 9 feet long and live around 45 years. They’re commonly found in deep, tropical parts of the world’s oceans. They tend to have some of the largest pods, numbering upwards of 1,000 individuals. As of 2023, electra dolphins are not endangered. 

Recognizing Types of Dolphins

If you’re ever on a boat, watching a movie or spot a dolphin in a book, you can often tell what species it is by looking at its coloring and nose shape. Understanding the diversity of the dolphin family is vital to understanding how we can protect these incredible animals. Different species are more threatened than others today, but all are vital parts of the marine ecosystem. 

You can help protect all types of dolphins by supporting research and conservation organizations such as Oceana, Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA and the World Wildlife Fund

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.