Subject: Killer whales: are they dolphins?

Phil Clapham (
Mon, 04 Oct 1999 07:19:22 -0400


Your niece's teacher is right.  Killer whales are in the taxonomic
"family" (as it's called) Delphinidae, which includes most of the
dolphins, so technically you can think of them as big (the biggest, in
fact) dolphins.  It's rather like saying that chimps, gorillas and
humans are all primates; except that for reasons of pure vanity we
humans placed ourselves in our own family within the primates.  To
understand how absurd this is you need to know that the genetic distance
between ourselves and chimpanzees is perhaps around 2-3%, while that
between some populations of minke whales (considered the same SPECIES!)
in about 10%!

Killer whales were given the scientific name of Orcinus orca in 1758 by
Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy; Linnaeus developed the system
of classification which is still used today.

One final point: classification is often in dispute.  There are some who
would like to reclassify killer whales by taking them out of the dolphin
family and placing them in a separate family with pilot whales.  But for
now at least the original classification stands.

Phil Clapham

> My niece said her teacher told her that, the killer whale was in the
> dolphin family. I told that I would find out. I would be greetful for
> any info. Thankful


Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D.
Large Whale Biology Program
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
166 Water Street
Woods Hole, MA 02543

tel (508) 495-2316
fax (508) 495-2066