Porpoise vs Dolphin: 5 Ways That These Sea Mammals Are Different

Written by Rebecca
Updated: September 16, 2022
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Key Points:

  • Dolphins are often mistaken for porpoises and vice versa.
  • Both of these animals are mammals living in oceans across the world.
  • The major differences between these mammals are location, beak shape, and personality.

Porpoises and dolphins are constantly mistaken for each other, even though their build can be quite different. They both nurse their young and have incredible intelligence. They are even both warm-blooded, just like any other mammal. Perhaps it is the shared gray color of their skin, but everything from their personality to the shape of their nose is drastically different.

In fact, they don’t even prefer the same habitat in the ocean, and only one of the two mammals lives any deeper than coastal waters. Which animal prefers to live in tropical waters? Which one is smarter? Let’s find out.

Comparing Porpoises vs. Dolphins

As easy as it is to confuse the dolphin and the porpoise in the wild, the two species are quite different. While the chart below covers some of the differences, there are 49 different species of dolphins and 7 different porpoise species.

PorpoisesDolphins
SpeciesHarbour porpoise
Vaquita (endangered)
Burmeister’s porpoise
Spectacled porpoise
Indo-Pacific finless porpoise
Narrow-ridged finless porpoise
Dall’s porpoise, which is the largest species.
Bottlenose dolphins
Spinner dolphins
Pacific white-sided dolphins
Pilot whale
South Asian River dolphin
Risso’s dolphin
Color variationsPrimarily black, dark gray, light gray, and whiteWhite, pink, brown, grey, blue, black
Nose shapeA blunt beak that blends with the rest of the faceAn elongated beak that extends from the face
Preferred habitatCold watersTemperate or tropical waters
Dorsal fin sizeShort, sometimes roundedTall with a high pointed peak

The 5 Key Differences Between Porpoises and Dolphins

Though the dorsal fin and the appearance from above the water may fool you, make no mistake – the porpoise and the dolphin have many physical and intellectual differences that can make them easy to identify.

Both are air-breathing, warm-blooded mammals, however, the differences between Porpoises and Dolphins are mainly their appearance. Dolphins are known for a long snout, larger mouths, and a curved dorsal fin. Porpoises are chunkier and have round heads with short snouts.

Let’s take a look at the ways that these two mammals vary.

Porpoise vs Dolphin: A Notable Nose

Perhaps the easiest way to tell dolphins and porpoises apart is the shape of their nose. The porpoise, regardless of the species, has a rather flat nose, and there’s no beak that extends from its face. The dolphin, on the other hand, has a rather long and large nose, extending several inches from the rest of its face.

The rest of their face is much different as well. As a result of this nose, the dolphin tends to have a bigger mouth. They also have a long and lean body and a much larger dorsal fin, directly contradicting the thicker and shorter physique of the porpoise.

Porpoise vs Dolphin: Natural Habitat

The natural habitat seems to be another easy way to differentiate these animals. Both the dolphin and the porpoise will swim in coastal waters as their main location. The porpoise requires waters of no greater than 650 depths, allowing them to live in both freshwater and saltwater. More specifically, their typical location is in northern areas of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, though some live in the Black Sea as well.

Depending on the species, dolphins have a much broader selection in their habitat. They prefer a warmer habitat, so they can be found in a tropical or temperate location with much deeper waters than porpoises will ever venture.

Porpoise vs Dolphin: Who’s Smarter?

The dolphin is constantly praised for its intelligence, but is it truly smarter than the porpoise? Both have incredible intelligence, but the dolphin wins this battle. They have much more curiosity about their surroundings and the people around them. Dolphins even have names for each other!

Don’t sell the porpoise short though! Their intelligence is controlled by a large brain as well, and they still have incredible self-awareness like humans.

Porpoise vs Dolphin: Differences in Color

Even with seven different species, there are extraordinarily few color variations in porpoises. For the most part, they are only seen in black, shades of gray, and white. In fact, the largest species looks strikingly close to the orca whale.

Dolphins, on the other hand, have many colors amongst their four dozen species. While some are deep shades of gray and white, they are also seen in a navy blue, pink, and brown. Some even have unique patterns.

Porpoise vs Dolphin: Sea Life Aggressors

Everyone sees the dolphin as the friendly and fun animal that they typically see during whale watching excursions and large aquariums, but they can be rather brutal. Dolphins have quite a reputation for hunting down porpoises in some kind of entertainment. They’ll bite and throw them, and their teeth have left markings and scars on dead porpoises that have washed ashore. Their sharp teeth leave rather large gashes along their entire body.

Porpoises, on the other hand, don’t typically reciprocate the aggression, even though their teeth would allow it.

Both porpoises and dolphins are carnivorous, meaning they hunt other sea animals. Porpoise diets consist of schooling fish like herring and mackerel. Dolphins have a much bigger range than porpoises, so their diet encompasses fish, squid, shrimps, jellyfish, and octupuses.

Summary: Dolphins vs Porpoises

TraitDolphinsPorpoises
AnatomyLong, extended nose
Lean body, larger dorsal fin
Short nose
Thick, short body
HabitatTropical, temperate climate
Range shallow to deep waters
Cold waters
Shallow waters
IntelligenceMore curiosityGreat self-awareness
ColorGrey, white, navy, pink, brownBlack, shades of grey, white
PersonalityAggression for fun towards porpoisesNot aggressive unless during mating season

Up Next…

Marine mammals are often mistaken for each other, as their body shapes and colors can be similar. Here are a few other commonly mistaken species:

Porpoise vs Dolphin
Porpoise vs Dolphin
A-Z-Animals.com
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About the Author

My name is Rebecca and I've been a Professional Freelancer for almost a decade. I write SEO content and graphic design. When I'm not working, I'm obsessing over cats and pet rats.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Do dolphins kill porpoises?

Yes. The porpoise isn’t any part of the diet of the dolphin, but they will still bite them, play catch with their bodies, and ram them. The way that they behave with the porpoise is much like the way a cat will play with a dead mouse.

Can porpoises and dolphins mate?

Yes, it is possible for these species to mate. According to recent studies, the hybrid variations of these breeds have proven to be fertile, and they can produce additional hybrid offspring.

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