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Identification key for stranded cetaceans

To begin using this key, start at number one and follow the descriptions making one of two choices at each step. Click on the link (e.g. "Go to 3") and continue through the table until you eventually reach the link identifying your cetacean.

[Many of the links redirect to a detailed fact file on that species for further information]

1.
Baleen present on palate. No teeth. Lower jaw very wide and arched in shape. Go to 2
No baleen. Teeth present (sometimes concealed beneath the gum). Lower jaw narrow (at least near the front). Go to 7
2. Baleen Whales
No grooves on throat. No dorsal fin. Mouth and upper border of lower lip very arched in shape. Long baleen plates up to 6-9ft high. Northern right whale
Numerous parallel grooves on throat. Go to 3
3.
Flippers very long (nearly 1/3 of animal's length) and often white with scalloped lower margin. Humpback whale
Flippers much less than one third of animal's length, not scalloped on lower margin. Go to 4
4. Rorquals
Baleen yellowish white or slate coloured, or both. Go to 5
Baleen black or nearly black. Go to 6
5.
Size up to 70ft +. Baleen yellow and slate coloured except at front of right side of mouth where it is white, its hairy fringes white or yellowish. Tail flukes white below. Fin whale
Size up to 30ft. Baleen and its hairy fringes all white or yellowish. White band on outside of flipper. Minke whale
6.
Size up to 85ft +. Baleen very black with coarse black hairs. Blue whale 
Size up to 50ft +. Baleen mostly dark with very fine, white, curling, silky hairs. Tail flukes not white below. Sei whale
7. Toothed Whales, Dolphins & Porpoises
Tip of lower jaw well behind foremost limit of head. Go to 8
Tip of lower jaw at about same level as tip of snout. Go to 9
8.
Size of large whale, up to 60ft +. Sperm whale
Size of large dolphin, up to 12ft. Dwarf / pygmy sperm whale
9.
No dorsal fin. Go to 10
Dorsal fin present. Go to 11
10.
Head short. Prominent forehead. Colour greyish with black mottling. Either no visible teeth (female) or a single, spirally twisted tusk, projecting from front of the upper jaw (male). Narwhal
Colour white all over (grey-brown in juveniles). 8 - 10 pairs of teeth in each jaw. Beluga
11.
Teeth confined to lower jaw or apparently absent. Go to 12
Teeth in upper and lower jaws. Go to 16
12.
Large dorsal fin, half way along back. No beak. 2 - 7 pairs of teeth at front end of lower jaw. Up to 12.5ft in length. Risso's dolphin
Dorsal fin two thirds of way along back. Front end of jaws narrow. Two grooves on throat. Go to 13
13. Beaked Whales
Size large, up to 25 - 30ft. Distance from tip of snout to blowhole 1/5 to 1/7 total length of animal. Bulbous forehead. One to two pairs of teeth at tip of lower jaw, usually concealed. Northern bottlenose whale
Distance from tip of snout to blowhole less than 1/7 of total length. Go to 14
14.
Size large, up to 26ft. Distance from tip of snout to blowhole 1/8 to 1/10 total length. Forehead not prominent. Pair of teeth at tip of lower jaw, concealed in females. Cuvier's beaked whale
Size smaller, not exceeding 20ft. Long beak. Go to 15
 15.
Size about 15ft. Colour; mostly black, usually with white scrape marks. One pair of teeth half way along lower jaw. Conspicuous and triangular in males, concealed in females. Sowerby's beaked whale
Size about 17ft. Colour dark grey, often with white 'scrape' marks. One pair of teeth at tip of lower jaw. Teeth conspicuous and flattened sideways in males, concealed in females. True's beaked whale
N.B. There are at least 2 other beaked whale species which may occur here - Blainville's and Gervais' beaked whale
16. Dolphins & Porpoises
Size large, 15 - 30 ft in adults. 8 - 13 teeth in each jaw. Go to 17
Size seldom exceeding 12-14ft, usually less than 9ft. Teeth no more than 1/2 of an inch in diameter. More than 15 pairs of teeth. Go to 19
17.
Bulbous forehead overhanging the tip of a short beak. Long thin flippers 1/5 of body length. Colour black with some white on belly. 8 - 12 pairs of teeth in each jaw 3/4 inch diameter. Long-finned pilot whale
Forehead not prominent. 10 - 13 pairs of teeth in each jaw, at least 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Go to 18
18.
Colour conspicuously black and white (or yellowish). Flippers broad, not pointed. Teeth about 1 inch in diameter. Killer whale
Colour black all over. Flippers narrow and pointed. Teeth as in Killer Whale. False killer whale
19.
Size up to 5.5ft. 21 - 24 pairs of teeth in each jaw. Teeth flattened sideways with spade-shaped crowns (peg-like). Beak not distinguishable. Harbour porpoise
Size larger, conical teeth, crowns of teeth not spade-shaped. A distinct beak. Go to 20
20.
Size up to 14ft. Top of beak (from forehead to start of curve at tip of snout) about 3 inches long. Large teeth, 20 - 25 pairs in each jaw, up to 1/2 an inch in diameter. Bottlenose dolphin
Teeth not exceeding quarter inch in diameter Go to 21
21.
Top of beak about 2 inches (from forehead to start of curve at tip of snout). Length 9 - 10ft. Go to 22
Top of beak about 6 inches (from forehead to start of curve at tip of snout). 40 - 50 pairs of teeth in each jaw. Teeth about 1/10 of an inch in diameter. Length up to 7ft. Go to 23
22.
Upper lip white. Dark colour of flippers continuous with body colour. Lower margin of flippers not much curved. Approx. 25 pairs of teeth in each jaw, 1/4 of an inch in diameter. White-beaked dolphin
Upper lip black. Flippers with strongly curved lower margin. Flippers dark colour meets white body colour, with dark stripe running from flipper to snout. Conspicuous white patch on each flank behind dorsal fin. 30 - 40 pairs of teeth in each jaw, 1/4 of an inch in diameter. Atlantic white-sided dolphin
23.
Well marked, narrow dark band of pigment extending from eye along the flank, curving down to the anus. Another dark stripe running from the flipper joint towards the eye. Striped dolphin
Hourglass pattern on each side of animal. Dark along back with lighter (bluish) grey on tail stock. Creamy/yellow below this. Dark stripe running from front of eye to top of beak. Second dark stripe from flipper joint to lower jaw. Common dolphin
 
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