Stranded pilot whales on Mass. beaches were rare visitors from the south

Two pilot whales that washed up on Massachusetts beaches this week were rare visitors from the south, members of a species that has never before been documented in the state, animal welfare officials said.

The creatures, which both died, were identified as short-finned pilot whales, a species that is rare in the Northern Atlantic, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW.

This type of whale typically frequents warmer waters such as the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean off of Florida, and is distinctly different from the long-finned pilot whale that frequents the Northern Atlantic and Massachusetts waters.

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“To put it in perspective, a household dog and a gray wolf actually have more in common genetically than these two types of whales,’’ said Brian Sharp, the agency’s stranding coordinator.

A short-finned pilot whale was recorded stranded in Rhode Island in 2001 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the only other documented case of the creature inhabiting waters north of New Jersey, officials said.

One of the whales died on a Duxbury beach on Monday, and another on a Truro beach on Tuesday.

“This may have been a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as other pilot whales were sighted just offshore when it stranded,’’ Sharp said of the whale in Truro. “This whale’s unfortunate death at least will provide an opportunity for us to learn more about another whale species through an animal autopsy and CT scans.’’

Biologists are unsure why the whales traveled so far north, but speculate it could be a result of the warmer-than-usual weather, or that the mammals are extending their habitat range.

Short-finned pilot whales are smaller than long-finned pilot whales, have deeper chests and shorter pectoral flippers, fewer teeth, different markings, and a taller dorsal fin, according to the agency.

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Stranded marine mammals south of Plymouth through Rhode Island should be reported to the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s emergency hotline at 508-743-9548. Strandings from Plymouth to Maine can be reported to the New England Aquarium at 617-973-5247.

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