The common dolphin is the name given to up to three species of dolphin making up the genus Delphinus.
Prior to the mid-1990s, most taxonomists only recognized one species in this genus, the Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis. Modern cetologists usually recognize two species – the Short-beaked Common Dolphin, which retains the systematic name Delphinus delphis, and the Long-beaked Common Dolphin D. capensis.
Despite the historic practice of lumping the entire Delpinus genus into a single species, these widely distributed dolphins exhibit a wide variety of size, shape and color. Indeed over the past few decades over 20 distinct species in the genus have been proposed. Scientists in California in the 1960s concluded that there were two species – the long-beaked and short-beaked. This analysis was essentially confirmed by a more in-depth genetic study in the 1990s. This study also suggested that a third species (D. tropicalis, common name usually Arabian Common Dolphin), characterized by an extremely long and thin beak and found in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, might be distinguished from the long-beaked species. The current standard taxonomic works recognise this as just a regional variety.
The common dolphin is widely distributed in temperate, sub-tropical and tropical waters throughout the world in a band roughly spanning 40 degrees south to 50 degrees north. The variation in make-up described above from one population to the next suggested little interaction between distinct groups.
This species typically prefers enclosed bodies of water such as the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Deep off-shore waters and to a lesser extent over continental shelves are preferred over shallower waters. Some populations may be present year round, while others appear to move in a migratory pattern. Preferred surface water temperature is 10-28 degrees Celsius. The total population is unknown but numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Common dolphins travel in groups of around 10-50 in number and frequently gather into schools numbering 100 to 2000 individuals. These schools are generally very active – groups often surface, jump and splash together. Typical behavior includes breaching, tail-slapping, chin-slapping and proposing.
The dolphins have been seen to mix with other cetaceans such as other dolphins in the Yellow fin tuna grounds of the eastern Pacific and also schools of Pilot Whales. An intriguing theory suggests that dolphins ‘bow-riding’ on very large whales was the origin of bow-riding on boats.
The gestation period is about 11 months and the calving period is between one and three years. Sexual maturation occurs at five years and longevity is twenty to twenty-five years. These figures are subject to large variation across different populations.