Species Profile and Threats Database

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In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Cetacean
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans
Information Sheets Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005e) [Information Sheet].
Non-statutory Listing Status
IUCN: Listed as Data Deficient (Global Status: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: 2013.1 list)
Scientific name Lissodelphis peronii [44]
Family Delphinidae:Cetacea:Mammalia:Chordata:Animalia
Species author (Laciphde,1804)
Infraspecies author  
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images

Scientific name: Lissodelphis peronii

Common name: Southern Right Whale Dolphin

The Southern Right Whale Dolphin was described by Lacépède in 1804 as Delphinus peronii, possibly based on a specimen collected south of Tasmania. It has been postulated that the closely related northern species Lissodelphis borealis may belong to the same species as the Southern Right Whale Dolphin (L. peronii) (Bannister et al. 1996), however this has not been confirmed.

The Southern Right Whale Dolphin is described as a strange-looking dolphin due to its lack of a dorsal fin, from which it gets the 'right whale' portion of its common name. This feature, plus the conspicuous black and white coloration pattern, enables easy identification at sea. The upper parts of the body are black, dipping into a saddle above the flippers and coming back up to the dorsal surface anterior to the eyes. There is a sharp dividing line to the white flanks, face, flippers and tail flukes. The beak is small but distinct, and the body slim and tapering toward the tail. The maximum weight for Southern Right Whale Dolphins is 116 kg, with maximum lengths reaching 2.97 m in males and 2.3 m in females.

Group size ranges from 1–1000, with an average group size of 52 animals. When swimming at high speed they give the impression of hardly re-entering the water while executing low-angled leaps. Off Namibia they have been recorded in mixed-species groups with Pilot Whales and Dusky Dolphins. Elsewhere, they have been commonly reported swimming with many other species, including Pilot Whales, Common Dolphins, Hourglass Dolphins, Dusky Dolphins and large whales (Baker 1981; Leatherwood & Reeves 1983). Many strandings have been recorded outside Australia, with mass strandings of up to 77 individuals.

Southern Right Whale Dolphins are found off southern continental Australia. They have stranded in Tasmania, plus several sightings have been made south and south-westward of Tasmania, in the Great Australian Bight and off south-western Australia (Bannister et al. 1996). Southern Right Whale Dolphins have not been recorded from either Heard Island or Macquarie Island.

Although no key localities are known in Australian waters (Bannister et al. 1996), greater survey effort could potentially find key localities similar to that off the west coast of Namibia where Southern Right Whale Dolphins appear to have a year-round occurrence in a localised area associated with the Lüderitz upwelling cell area.

The current extent of occurrence of the Southern Right Whale Dolphin is estimated to be greater than 20 000 km² (based on the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (200 nm, south of 30° S but north of 65° S and deeper than 1000 m) (Peddemors & Harcourt 2006, pers. comm.). There are no known past declines in extent of occurrence, although increasing ocean temperatures predicted by climate change scenarios could potentially decrease the extent of occurrence of the Southern Right Whale Dolphin in the future if warmer water extends southwards beyond 30° S.

The current area of occupancy of Southern Right Whale Dolphins cannot be calculated due to the sparsity of sighting records for a large proportion of the range. However it is likely to be greater than 2000 km² (Peddemors & Harcourt 2006, pers. comm.). There are no known past declines in the area of occupancy, and no future changes are currently anticipated.

Southern Right Whale Dolphins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere, where their distribution is circumpolar and generally between about 30–65° S (low latitudes to 12° S off western South Africa and South America, related to the cold currents) (Baker 1981; Clarke 2000; Cruikshank & Brown 1981; Findlay et al. 1992; Van Waerebeek et al. 1991).

Off the west coast of Namibia they appear to have a year-round occurrence in a localised area. This distribution appears to be associated with the Lüderitz upwelling cell area (Rose & Payne 1991). Similar key localities could be found in Australian waters following greater survey effort.

In other parts of its range, a northward migration in winter and spring has been suggested (Bannister et al. 1996; Cruikshank & Brown 1981).

There are no estimates of population size anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern Right Whale Dolphin is considered abundant off western South America, and has been observed at sea many times to the south-east of New Zealand (Ross 2006).

It is likely that Southern Right Whale Dolphins move between Australian waters and those of other countries due to the lack of any deep water barriers.

The Southern Right Whale Dolphin has not been well surveyed. Their distribution is assumed from few sightings at sea, plus beach-cast animals. However, these methods are believed to result in reliable distributional information for this species.

There are no population estimates for Southern Right Whale Dolphin within Australia. They are considered abundant off western South America, and are regularly observed at sea to the south-east of New Zealand (Ross 2006). Sightings to the south of Australia are rarely reported but they may occur more regularly than current observations suggest (Clarke 2000).

The lack of abundance and distribution data do not allow definitive assessment of the potential for sub-populations of Southern Right Whale Dolphins in Australian waters, but elsewhere in their range their distribution is contiguous. It is therefore likely that the species occurs in one population within Australia.

Because no population numbers are known for this species, no population trends can be calculated. However, some Southern Right Whale Dolphins are incidentally killed in drift nets in adjacent international waters. Thus, population numbers can be assumed to have been reduced due to human-induced mortalities. Ongoing incidental captures are the most likely cause of potential future population decline, although no quantitative data is currently available.

Although some seasonal variation in population numbers have been recorded elsewhere (Findlay et al. 1992), no extreme fluctuations are known for this species.

A possible hybridisation event with Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhyncus obscurus) has been reported (Yazdi 2002).

All cetaceans are protected within The Australian Whale Sanctuary under the EPBC Act. The Sanctuary includes all Commonwealth waters from the three nautical mile state waters limit out to the boundary of the EEZ (out to 200 nautical miles and further in some places). The species is also subject to International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulations and protected within the Indian Ocean Sanctuary and Southern Ocean Sanctuary.

The Southern Right Whale Dolphin is a pelagic species, generally occurring between the Subtropical and Subantarctic Convergences. They are usually found well offshore but when inshore are usually in deep water, or on the outer edges of the continental shelf. In the northern parts of its distribution, it is found associated with cold currents and upwelling conditions. Preferred water temperatures range from about 2–20 °C. The distribution of the Southern Right Whale Dolphin is thought to be associated with the West Wind Drift.

The biological information presented in this profile is based on limited and non-Australian information (Bannister et al. 1986). Sexual maturity is reached at above 2.5 m and 2.18 m in males and females respectively.

Reported pathologies include heart scars, lung abscesses, lung inflammation, pulmonary oedema, ulceration and brain lesions. The parasite Nasitrema has been found in the air sinuses. The only known natural predator of the Southern Right Whale Dolphin is the Patagonian Toothfish, although sharks and Killer Whales are also likely predators (Bannister et al. 1996).

Almost nothing is known of this species' reproductive biology. Calves are born weighing about 5 kg, and measuring around 0.86 m. No information is available on ages or sizes at weaning or on reaching physical maturity. The mating season, gestation and calving interval are not known. There may be some seasonality in calving season, with reports from November to April, however no calving areas are known.

Very few Southern Right Whale Dolphin stomachs have been examined. Myctophids and other mesopelagic fish, squid and crustaceans have been recorded, and euphausiids are also thought to be potential prey (Chou et al. 1995). It is unknown whether the Southern Right Whale Dolphin is a surface or deep-layer feeder (Bannister et al. 1996; Jefferson et al. 1994).

The area of high sightings off Namibia coincides with a high abundance of lantern fish, euphausids and small squid. However, no stomachs have been examined from this area.

It has been postulated that the large school sizes commonly observed in Southern Right Whale Dolphins are more efficient at finding widely dispersed, but locally abundant, prey items. In addition, their body shape is designed for rapid movement to coral pelagic prey.

The Southern Right Whale Dolphin is only regional pelagic dolphin without a dorsal fin. The body is slim and graceful with striking black and white colouration. Because of its distinctive colouration and shape, the Southern Right Whale Dolphin should be easy to distinguish from other species.

The Southern Right Whale Dolphin is a fast swimmer, reaching at least 25 km per hour. It often lobtails and leaps clear of the water, and entire schools have been seen moving in 'a series of bouncing leaps' (Leatherwood & Reeves 1983). Individuals and small groups sometimes bow-ride vessels. Associations with other species are common, especially Dusky Dolphins and Pilot Whales.

Recommended methods
Cetacean surveys are constrained by several important factors including weather (e.g. sea state and light conditions), area to be covered, aim of the survey (abundance estimate versus ecological studies), the activities of the animals themselves (e.g. travelling, resting, surface versus deep feeding), and the type of craft used for the survey.

Surveys for pelagic dolphins have primarily been boat-based transects, although some aerial surveys have been conducted in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Almost no dedicated cetacean surveys conducted in Australian northern waters, but surveys associated with petro-chemical exploration may be used as platforms of opportunity. The minimum requirement on such non-dedicated surveys should be to obtain basic biological information from incidentally-caught animals from fishing vessels with one biologist on a fishing vessel for one year. As a minimum requirement, sighting programs operated from existing cruises should include two observers on two appropriate vessels for one year (Peddemors 2006, pers. comm.).

Past and current threats to the Southern Right Whale Dolphin population identified by Bannister and colleagues (1996) include:

  • sporadic catches by whalers (for meat) in the nineteenth century but never a directed fishery
  • incidental catches in Chilean gill-net fisheries
  • entanglement in drift-nets set outside Australian Territorial Waters and in lost or discarded netting
  • reported hooked by line fishing, but no information for Australian waters.

In addition, the species is prone to entanglement in gill-nets and therefore potentially threatened by gill-netting operations occurring within their distribution in the Australian region. Pollution (including increasing amounts of plastic debris at sea, oil spills and dumping of industrial wastes into waterways and the sea) leading to bio-accumulation of toxic substances in body tissues has also been identified as a potential threat (Bannister et al. 1996).
The low reproductive rate of Southern Right Whale Dolphins (possibly one offspring every 2–3 years) means that population recovery is a slow process.

Bannister and colleagues (1996) and Ross (2006) recommend the following recovery and threat abatement actions be undertaken to better understand the threats to the Southern Right Whale Dolphin:

  • Determine the extent of incidental catch in netting and hook-and-line operations south of continental Australia.
  • Investigate stranded and incidentally-caught specimens to establish basic biological parametres and levels of toxic pollutants, including ensuring specimens are made available to appropriate scientific museums.
  • Determine distribution and abundance south of continental Australia to assess impact of possible threats.
  • Increase international efforts to ameliorate and/or remove possible current and potential threats e.g. drift-netting, gill-netting.
  • Determine taxonomic relationships within and outside Indo-Pacific region to assess likely impact of threats on possible individual populations.

Current management actions already initiated to address the threats to the Southern Right Whale Dolphin include:

  • A summary of all records of the species in the Australasian region is being undertaken by the New Zealand Department of Conservation.
  • Reporting of all incidental catches during operations in Australian Territorial Waters is required.
  • Disentanglement workshops and associated action plans to protect cetaceans caught in fishing nets are being conducted. These workshops may be particularly relevant for offshore fishers.

The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister et al. 1996) and the Review of the Conservation Status of Australia's Smaller Whales and Dolphins (Ross 2006) provide brief biological overviews and management recommendations of this species. In addition, Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching Guidelines (2005c) have been published.

No threats data available.

Baker, A. (1981). The southern right whale dolphin Lissodelphis peronii (Lacépède) in Australasian waters. Records of the National Museum of New Zealand. 2:17-34.

Chou, L.S., A.M. Bright, et al (1995). Stomach contents of dolphins (Delphinus delphis and Lissodelphis borealis) from North Pacific Ocean. Zoological Studies. 34(3):206-210.

Clarke, R.H. (2000). First record of the southern right whale dolphin Lissodelphis peronii (Lacepede, 1804) (Odonoceti : Delphinidae), from waters off South Australia.". Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. 124(Part2):177-178.

Cruickshank, R.A. & S.G. Brown (1981a). Recent observations and some historical records of southern right-whale dolphins Lissodelphis peronii. South African Fishery Bulletin. 15:109-121.

Department of the Environment and Heritage (2005e). Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching. [Online]. Available from:

Findlay, K.P., P.B. Best, G.J.B Ross & V.G. Cockcroft (1992). Distribution of Small Odontocete Cetaceans off the Coasts of South Africa and Namibia. South African Journal of Marine Science. 12:237-270.

Jefferson, T.A., M.W. Newcomer, S. Leatherwood & K. Van Waerebeek (1994). Right Whale Dolphins Lissodelphis borealis (Peale, 1848) and Lissodelphis peronii (Lacépède, 1804). In: Ridgway, S.H. & R. Harrison, eds. Handbook of Marine Mammals Vol 5: The First Book of Dolphins. Page(s) 335-362. Academic Press, London.

Leatherwood, S. & R.R. Reeves (1983). The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Peddemors, V.M. (2006). Personal Communications. Sydney: Graduate School of the Environment, Macquarie University.

Peddemors, V.M. & R. Harcourt (2006). Personal Communication. Sydney: Graduate School of the Environment, Macquarie University.

Rose, B. & A.I.L. Payne (1991). Occurrence and Behavior of the Southern Right Whale Dolphin Lissodelphis peronii Off Namibia. Marine Mammal Science. 7(1):25-34.

Van Waerebeek, K, Canto, J, Gonzalez, J, Oporto, J & Brito, J .L. (1991). Southern Right Whale Dolphins, Lissodelphis peronii off the Pacific coast of South America. Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde. 56:284-295.

Yazdi, P. (2002). A possible hybrid between the dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) and the southern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii). Aquatic Mammals. 28(2):211-217.

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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Lissodelphis peronii in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Sun, 21 Sep 2014 19:48:35 +1000.