• Ben Neely

Fintastic beasts and where to find them

We celebrate the World Marine Mammal Conference held in Barcelona this week by releasing three new chromosome-length marine mammal genome assemblies: for the harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), here; the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas), here; and the melon-headed whale (Peponocephala electra), here.


The long-finned pilot whale assembly is an upgrade based on the draft generated by the Canada’s Genomic Enterprise. The harbor porpoise and the melon-headed whale are the $1K-model DNA Zoo genomes, see (Dudchenko et al., 2018) for details. The samples used for this work were received from the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the NIST Biorepository.


The harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is one of six species of porpoise, commonly observed inhabiting coastal areas of Asia, North America, Europe and Africa (the individual assembled by the DNA Zoo came from Homer, Alaska). The name ‘porpoise’ derives from the Latin word ‘porcus’, which means hog and ‘piscis’ meaning fish, literally meaning sea pig. (Interesting since pigs and cetaceans are both even-toed ungulates. The latin name, Phocoena phocoena, on the other hand, means ‘big seal’, which is a pinniped in the distantly related carnivora order...) The harbor porpoise is roughly the size of a human, with a dark gray back, intermediate shades of gray along their sides, white belly and a white throat with a gray chin patch. The most apparent difference between a harbor porpoise and dolphin is that the harbor porpoise has no beak, a smaller, less curved dorsal fin, and small pointed flippers.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay [Pixabay License], via pixabay.com

The long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas), named for its unusually long pectoral fins, is a toothed whale approximately 20 feet long that mainly eats soft squid. They are social creatures that have at times formed groups of up to a thousand animals. They prefer the deep temperate to subpolar oceanic waters of the North Atlantic and southern Pacific (the individual assembled by the DNA Zoo came from the North Atlantic).

Pilot whale spyhop, photo by Barney Moss [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The melon-headed whale (Peponocephala electra) is also a toothed whale, but is small to medium sized at about 10 feet long. These whales prefer deep tropical/subtropical waters across the globe (the individual assembled by the DNA Zoo came from Hawaii). Similar to pilot whales, these whales can form groups of up to 1000 individuals. Studies have shown that they maintain a matrilineal structure such that females remain in groups with their mothers, whereas males move between groups (similar to some killer, sperm and pilot whales).

NOAA/Andrea Bendlin MMPA#15240

Like all marine mammals, the melon-headed whale, the long-finned pilot whale and the harbor porpoise are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


This work was performed under Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP) Permit No. 18786-03 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). The specimens used in this study was collected by: Carol A. Stephens (harbor porpoise; Homer, Alaska), the New England Aquarium (Belinda Rubenstein; long-finned pilot whale; Brewster, Breakwater Beach, Massachusetts) and the Hawaii Pacific University (Kristi West; long-finned pilot whale; Kahului, Hawaii). Specimens were provided by the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank, which is maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the NIST Biorepository, which is operated under the direction of NMFS with the collaboration of USGS, USFWS, MMS, and NIST through the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and the Alaska Marine Mammal Tissue Archival Project.


Along with the research highlighted this week at the World Marine Mammal Conference, we hope that the continued generation of high-quality genome assemblies will help advance the marine mammal science and conservation efforts. If you have specimens that you can share make sure to reach out, and stay tuned for more marine mammal genome assemblies coming out in the next few weeks on the DNA Zoo website!

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