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Porpoises.  Genus Phoccena.

Porpoises
Genus Phoccena.


Porpoises.  Genus Phoccena.  Copyright Stan Klos



The common porpoise (Phoccena communis), of the European seas, is the best known representative of a genus readily distinguished from all the others by the characters of the teeth. These are from sixteen to twenty-six in number on each side of the jaws, and are very small, with flattened spade-like crowns separated from the roots by a distinct neck; sometimes the upper border of the crown is entire, but in other cases it is divided into two or three distinct lobes. In size, porpoises are small; and the head has a rounded muzzle, without a beak. There is generally a fin on the back, although this is wanting in one species. The skull has a very broad palate, and the union between the two branches of the lower jaw is very short. There are frequently one or more rows of horny tubercles 011 the front edge of the back-tin, or of the ridge which takes its place.

common The common porpoise is by far the best-known of all the Cetaceans

Porpoise. frequenting the British coasts, generally keeping near the shores, and often ascending the larger rivers to considerable distances. It is characterized by having twenty-five to twenty-six teeth on each side of the jaws, by the sloping head, the equality in the length of the upper and lower jaws, and by the length of the mouth exceeding half that of the flipper. There is a large fin on the back, which is triangular in shape, and situated somewhat in advance of the middle of the total length of the animal. In length, the common porpoise measures about 5 feet, or rather more. The color of the upper-parts is dark slate, or blackish, while the sides become gradually lighter till the color fades into the pure white of the under parts. In some cases there is a yellowish or pinkish tinge on the flukes.

The distribution of this species is extensive, comprising the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans, the North Sea, and the coasts of Europe. In Davis Strait it extends as far northwards as latitude 67° or 69°, and it also occurs on the Alaskan coasts; while southwards it extends in America to the shores of New Jersey and Mexico. In the Mediterranean it is comparatively rare. Porpoises associate in shoals or herds of considerable size; and their sportive gambols are probably familiar to most of our readers.

Distribution.

Few sights are, indeed, more interesting than to watch a shoal of these animals diving and sporting round a vessel, whether it be making rapid headway, or lying at anchor. At one moment will be seen the roll of the arched back, surmounted by the tin, as the porpoise swims along in a series of gentle curves; while at another the white belly will flash in the sunlight as the creature turns on its side, or leaps completely out of the water. In the ordinary undulating mode of swimming, the porpoise just brings its blowhole to the surface, breathes without checking its course,


and then dips downwards, to expose the back-fin in the manner represented iu our second illustration; this elegant motion being continued without intermission. Throughout its course, the flukes are the propelling instrument; the flippers being laid close against the sides during the onward movement, and only spread out to check its speed when the animal desires to stop. The food of the porpoise apparently consists exclusively of fish; mackerel, pilchards, and herrings, being its especial favourites, although it also consumes salmon. On the British coasts porpoises may frequently be seen in pursuit of shoals of mackerel and herrings, and when thus engaged are often caught in the nets set for the latter. The pairing season is said to be in the summer, and it is believed that the single offspring is produced after a period of six months' gestation. Three porpoises which were enclosed by a fence in the Wareham River in Dorsetshire, many years ago, are reported to have incessantly uttered the most distressing cries, which were continued by night as well as by day.

Porpoise- Formerly porpoises were esteemed in England for their flesh,



Hunting. but they are now taken mainly for their oil, although the skin is also sometimes used. The leather commonly known as porpoise-hide is, however, as we have already had occasion to mention, generally made from the skin of the white whale. On parts of the coast of North America, porpoise-shooting is regularly practiced by the Indians; and this pursuit affords to the Passamaquody tribe their chief means of support. The average yield of oil will be about three gallons, and in a good season an Indian may kill .from one hundred to one hundred and fifty porpoises. "To make a successful porpoise-hunter," writes Mr. C. C. Ward, " requires five or six years of constant practice. Boys, ten or twelve years of age, are taken out in the canoes by the men, and thus early trained in the pursuit of that which is to form their main support in after years. Porpoise-shooting is followed at all seasons and in all kinds of weather—in the summer sea, in the boisterous autumn gales, and in the dreadful icy seas of mid-winter. In a calm summer day, the porpoise can be heard blowing for a long distance. The Indians, guided by the sound long before they can see the game, paddle rapidly in the direction from which the sound comes, and rarely fail to secure the porpoise. They use long smooth-bored guns, loaded with a handful of powder, and a heavy charge of double-B shot. As soon as the porpoise is shot, they paddle rapidly up to him and kill him with a spear, to prevent his flopping about and upsetting the canoe after they have taken him aboard. The manner of taking a porpoise on board is to insert two fingers of the right hand into the blowhole, take hold of the pectoral fin with the left hand, and lift the creature up until at least one half of his length is above the gunwale of the canoe, and then drag him aboard. This is comparatively easy to accomplish in smooth water, but when the feat is performed in a heavy sea, one can hardly realize the skill and daring required. In rough weather, with a high sea running, the Indian is compelled to stand up in his canoe when he fires, otherwise he could not see his game. In such work as this, one would suppose that upsets would be unavoidable; but, strange to say, they seldom happen, and only under circumstances where the Indian's skill or foresight is unavailing."

Although Mr. True believes that there are two other species of Indian Porpoise.

porpoise with back-fins inhabiting American waters, it will be unnecessary to allude further to them here; and we accordingly pass on to the Indian porpoise (P. phocccnoides). This species is readily distinguished by the absence of the back-fin, and the reduced number of the teeth, of which there are about eighteen on each side of the jaws. Of small size, it is less than 4 feet in length, and is of a uniform black color. It inhabits the shores of the Indian Ocean, from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan; and has been taken in many of the tidal rivers of India, and in the Yang-tse-Kiang, at a distance of nearly one thousand miles from its mouth.

The following account of the habits of this species is given by Mr. F. W. Sinclair, who states that it " frequents the tidal creeks, not ascending very far, and the sounds among the reefs and islands. It feeds chiefly on prawns, also on small cephalopods and fish. It does not appear to herd in schools, more than four or five, being rarely, if ever, seen together. Usually it is solitary; the pairs seem to consist of female and calf, more often than male and female. The young (one in number) are born, apparently, about October. The roll of this porpoise is like that of P. communis. It does not jump or turn somersaults, and is, on the whole, a sluggish little porpoise." It appears to be found only in shallow water.  - The Royal Natural History: Mammals, birds By Richard Lydekker - 1895 Edited by Stanley L. Klos 1999


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