Species Profile and Threats Database

For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
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
Policy Statements and Guidelines Industry Guidelines on the Interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales (Department of the Environment and Water Resources (DEW), 2007h) [Admin Guideline].
Information Sheets Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005e) [Information Sheet].
State Listing Status
SA: Listed as Rare (National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (South Australia): Rare species: June 2011 list)
Non-statutory Listing Status
IUCN: Listed as Data Deficient (Global Status: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: 2013.1 list)
Scientific name Kogia breviceps [57]
Family Physeteridae:Cetacea:Mammalia:Chordata:Animalia
Species author (de Blainville, 1838)
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: Kogia breviceps

Common name: Pygmy Sperm Whale

The Pygmy Sperm Whale was originally described as Physeter breviceps by de Blainville in 1838, but was later moved to the genus Kogia. The closely related Dwarf Sperm Whale, K. sima, was not confirmed until 1966 (Handley 1966), so records before this time may refer to either species (Bannister et al. 1996). No subspecies are currently recognised.

Pygmy Sperm Whales are small robust whales with a distinctive underslung jaw, not unlike sharks. They have the shortest rostrum among cetaceans, and the skull is markedly asymmetrical. The flippers of Pygmy Sperm Whales are set high on the sides near the head, while the small falcate dorsal fin (<5% of the body length) is usually set well behind the midpoint of the back (Jefferson et al. 1993).

Colouration in adult Pygmy Sperm Whales is dark bluish-grey to blackish-brown on the back with a light underside (Leatherwood & Reeves 1983). On the side of the head, between the eye and the flipper, there is often a crescent-shaped, light-coloured mark referred to as a "false gill" (McAlpine 2002).

Female Pygmy Sperm Whales are larger than males of the same age, with maximum recorded weights being 480 kg for females or 374 kg for males. The largest animal recorded measured 3.66 m (of unknown sex) (Ross 2006).

Pygmy Sperm Whales occur individually or in small groups of up to six animals. Almost nothing is known of the behaviour and ecology of this species (Jefferson et al. 1993).

Two reported sightings of Pygmy Sperm Whales have occurred in Australian waters, along with 82 strandings. Stranded animals have been reported for all states, but not the Northern Territory (DEW 2007; Ross 2006). In other regions, Pygmy Sperm Whales are reported to stay in deeper water off the continental shelf, apparently not approaching as close inshore as Dwarf Sperm Whales (Bannister et al. 1996; Ross 1984).

The current extent of occurrence for Pygmy Sperm Whale is estimated to be greater than 20 000 km² (based on the Australian Economic Exclusion Zone (200 nm, and generally deeper than 200 m) (Peddemors & Harcourt 2006, pers. comm.). Increasing ocean temperatures predicted by climate change scenarios could potentially increase the extent of occurrence, with warmer water extending southwards along both coasts.

The area of occupancy of Pygmy Sperm Whale cannot be accurately calculated due to the paucity of records for Australia. Future expansion of high-seas pelagic gillnet fisheries may result in increased incidental catches, potentially affecting local populations and leading to a decrease in area of occupancy.

Pygmy Sperm Whales are considered to occur in one location as there are no known pelagic (open ocean) boundaries that would obstruct their movements (Peddemors & Harcourt 2006, pers. comm.).

The Pygmy Sperm Whale is considered to have a cosmopolitan, oceanic distribution. They occur in tropical and temperate oceans around the world, living mostly beyond the edge of the continental shelf (Rice 1998). It is known from all three major ocean basins (Pacific, Atlantic and Indian) (Cetacean Specialist Group 1996).

No estimates of the global population size exist. A limited amount of hunting has taken place in Japan, the Lesser Antilles, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, but this species has not been a major target of exploitation. Hunting is thought to have only limited impact due to the localised nature and small size of Pygmy Sperm Whale groups. Mortality in fishing gear, especially gillnets, is likely to be a more serious problem. However, the data on mortality levels and whale abundance are far from sufficient to allow for a proper assessment. Ingestion of plastic debris may also contribute to morbidity and mortality (Cetacean Specialist Group 1996; Reeves et al. 2003).

The relationship between Pygmy Sperm Whales inhabiting Australian and international waters is unknown (Carwardine 1995). However, Martin and Heyning (1999) reported the parasitic cyamid amphipod species Isocyamus kogiae from a Pygmy Sperm Whale stranded in southern California. The parasite had previously only been found in whales from Moreton Island, Queensland, Australia. This finding suggests that Pygmy Sperm Whales from both sides of the Pacific are not isolated from each other, and implies that any impacts within the Pacific could affect the Australian population. Currently, however, insufficient information exists for Pygmy Sperm Whales to quantify any potential threats.

Worldwide, the Pygmy Sperm Whale is not well surveyed. Their Australian distribution is primarily assumed from incidental sightings, plus beach-cast animals, for all areas.

The size of the Australian population of Pygmy Sperm Whales is unknown (Caldwell & Caldwell 1989). However, in areas where they frequently strand, members of the genus Kogia are considered to be one of the most common species to come ashore. Two sightings and 82 Pygmy Sperm Whale strandings have been reported in Australian territories (DEW 2007).

All cetaceans are protected within the Australian Whale Sanctuary under the EPBC Act. The Sanctuary includes all Commonwealth waters from the three nm state waters limit out to the boundary of the Exclusive Economic Zone (i.e. out to 200 nm and further in some places).

The Pygmy Sperm Whale inhabits pelagic (open-ocean) temperate to tropical waters around the world (Ross 1984).

It has been suggested that the Pygmy Sperm Whale occurs predominately beyond the edge of the continental shelf, while the Dwarf Sperm Whale lives over or near the edge of the shelf (Caldwell & Caldwell 1991). However, this exclusion was not apparent in the study of Mullin and colleagues (1994) who, by aerial observation, found both species over water depths of 400–600 m in the North-Central Gulf of Mexico. However, the observed preferred waters were characterised by high zooplankton biomass (Baumgartner et al. 2001), which may have allowed both species to co-exist.

Known reproductive information for the Pygmy Sperm Whale is based largely on data collected from South Africa (Bannister et al. 1996; Ross 1979b). Sexual maturity is reached at approximately five years, at lengths of about 2.62 m for females, and 2.42 m for males. Physical maturity is not reached until much later, at around 14 years and a length of 3.0 m in females, and 12.5 years and 2.8 m in males. The maximum-recorded age of a Pygmy Sperm Whale female was estimated at 22.4 years, at a length of 3.28 m. The oldest recorded male was estimated to be 16 years old, at 3.31 m. However, a 3.66 m animal of unrecorded sex has been measured, suggesting that life expectancy may exceed these estimates (Ross 2006).

There is little information on mortality and pathology for Pygmy Sperm Whales, particularly because identification at sea can be extremely difficult. These whales strand relatively frequently, often as cow/calf pairs (Bannister et al. 1996). Occasionally there is evidence of shark bites on live-stranded animals, suggesting predation attempts. It is thought that predation must be high as Pygmy Sperm Whales have anatomical adaptations to assist them in avoiding predators. Like the Dwarf Sperm Whale, this species is able to store large volumes of dark faecal liquid in the rectum, which is ejected in a long stream when fleeing danger or disturbance, leading to the Japanese name "Rocket Whale" (Jefferson et al 2003). This dark fluid is also used to camouflage a calf in potential danger (Scott & Cordaro 1987).

Breeding areas and habitat are unknown, but are presumed to be oceanic. Little is known about the mating system of this species, but calving is inferred to occur in winter following an 11 month gestation and a mating season spanning from April through September (Ross 2006). Although little is known about reproduction in this Family of whales, it appears that Pygmy Sperm Whales have a high reproductive rate, with an ovulation rate of 0.9/year and calving interval of one year (Ross 2006).

The stomach contents of stranded Pygmy Sperm Whales suggest that this species feeds in deep water on cephalopods and, less often, on deep-sea fishes and shrimps (Caldwell & Caldwell 1991; Jefferson et al. 1993; Santos & Haimovici 1998). Over the South African shelf, Pygmy Sperm Whales prey mainly on histioteuthid and lycoteuthid squids (Ross 1979b). Prey size is somewhat larger than that taken by the Dwarf Sperm Whale (Clarke 1986; Ross 1979b, 1984).

Almost nothing is known of the behaviour and ecology of Pygmy Sperm Whales, particularly regarding detailed behavioural observations such as those employed during feeding (Jefferson et al. 1993). Recording of Pygmy Sperm Whale sounds suggest that some may be associated with echolocation (clicks, buzzes, grating sounds), but apparently this species is not highly vocal. A sound maker in the right nasal passage, the 'museau de singe', is believed to be associated with sound production, as in other Sperm Whales (Culik 2000). This species may use echolocation to find and identify prey.

Stranding data of other Kogiidae (sperm whales) do not seem to suggest any strong seasonal changes in distribution, nor any migrations in Australian waters (DEW 2007). However, Duguy (1994) suggests that Pygmy Killer Whales may migrate from the coast to the open sea in summer, since most strandings, e.g. in Florida, occurred during winter and fall. A similar winter bias in European strandings of Pygmy Sperm Whales supports this hypothesis (Culik 2000).

On the beach, the shark-like head, small underslung lower jaw, and light coloured bracket mark, known as the "false gill", allow easy identification of this Family of whales. At sea, the position, size, and shape of the dorsal fin is most diagnostic. Pygmy Sperm Whales are also reported to float higher in the water with more of the head and back exposed than Dwarf Sperm Whales (Caldwell and Caldwell 1991).

Both Pygmy and Dwarf Sperm Whales are very difficult to detect except in extremely calm seas (Jefferson et al. 1993). They generally appear slow and sluggish, with no visible blow (Jefferson et al. 1993). They are, however, said to be very easy to approach, lying quietly at the surface practically until touched. However, they will not approach boats by themselves, and are considered rather timid (Culik 2000). Pygmy Sperm Whales spend considerable time lying motionless at the surface with the back of the head exposed and the tail hanging down loosely.

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. Additionally, Pygmy Sperm Whales are notoriously difficult to identify at sea due to their propensity to spend little time at the surface, breathing only a few times before submerging for extensive periods.

Surveys for oceanic cetaceans such as Pygmy Sperm Whales have primarily been boat-based transects. There are almost no dedicated cetacean surveys conducted in Australian waters. During non-dedicated surveys, including those associated with petro-chemical explorations, a minimum requirement is to record all cetacean sightings encountered with corresponding GPS position, environmental data (sea conditions and habitat) and behavioural observations. From fishing vessels, all incidentally caught animals should be recorded with corresponding GPS position, plus attempts should be made to obtain basic biological information from dead animals (V. Peddemors 2006, pers. comm.).

The Pygmy Sperm Whale has not historically been targeted by whalers in Australian waters. However, directed fisheries for cetaceans in the Lesser Antilles, Japan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia occasionally kill this species, although these whales are not the major targets of exploitation (Reeves et al. 2003). Mortality in fishing gear, especially gillnets, is likely to be a more serious problem. A few whales have been killed in Sri Lankan gillnet fisheries, and it is likely they are killed in gillnets elsewhere as well (Jefferson et al. 1993). Perez and colleagues (2001) report on occasional bycatches in fisheries in the north-east Atlantic. Likewise, the current threats to Pygmy Sperm Whales in Australian include possible entanglement in drift nets and other nets set, lost or discarded in international waters. However, the small numbers taken in both direct and incidental fisheries suggest that the species is not seriously threatened (Baird et al. 1996).

Additionally, ingestion of plastic debris may contribute to morbidity and mortality (Laist et al. 1999). The stomach of a young male Pygmy Sperm Whale stranded alive on Galveston Island, Texas, USA was found to be completely blocked by various plastic bags (Tarpley & Marwitz 1993). The increasing amounts of plastic and other debris at sea is currently threatening this, and many other species (Bannister et al. 1996; Ross 2006).

Other potential threats may include competition from expanding commercial fisheries in lower latitudes, particularly on pelagic squids, and from pollution leading to accumulation of toxic substances in body tissues, although these latter threats are likely to be low (Bannister et al. 1996; Reeves et al. 2003; Ross 2006).

Bannister and colleagues (1996) and Ross (2006) recommend the following actions be taken to better understand the threats to Pygmy Sperm Whales:

  • Determine the distribution and monitor abundance of Pygmy Sperm Whale in Australian waters to assess the possible impact of threats, particularly the effect of direct and indirect fishing activities. This should be done via a sighting program to monitor numbers.
  • Obtain information on Pygmy Sperm Whale diet to determine their trophic level, and assess any possible impact of the fishing industry on sperm whale food resources.
  • Obtain basic biological information (including diet, pollutant levels, and samples for genetic analysis) from incidentally-caught and stranded Pygmy Sperm Whale specimens.
  • Conduct a sighting program to monitor abundance, especially in tropical and temperate waters.
  • Report on and salvage specimens incidentally caught or stranded, and ensure specimens are made available to appropriate scientific museums to enable collection of life history data and tissue samples for genetic analysis.
  • Ensure adequate protection of species and resources in Australian and nearby waters.

Current projects initiated to address these threats include a requirement to report all incidental catches made within the Australian EEZ (Bannister et al. 1996). Disentanglement workshops have also been initiated, and may be particularly relevant for offshore fishers.

No threats data available.

Baird R.W, D. Nelson, J. Lien & D.W. Nagorsen (1996). The status of the Pygmy Sperm Whale, Kogia breviceps, in Canada. Canadian Field Naturalist. 110(3):525-532.

Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke (1996). The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans. [Online]. Canberra: Australian Nature Conservation Agency. Available from:

Baumgartner, M.F., K.D. Mullin, L.N. May & T.D. Leming (2001). Cetacean habitats in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Fishery Bulletin. 99:219-239.

Caldwell, D.K. & M.C. Caldwell (1991). Pygmy sperm whale Kogia breviceps (de Blainville 1838): Dwarf sperm whale Kogia simus Owen, 1866. In: Ridgway, S.H. & R. Harrison, eds. Handbook of Marine Mammals Vol. 4: River Dolphins and the Larger Toothed Whales. Page(s) 235-260. London: Academic Press.

Carwardine, M. (1995). Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Page(s) 257 pp. London, UK: Dorling Kindersley.

Clarke, M.R. (1986). Cephalopods in the diet of cetaceans. In: M.M. Bryden & R. Harrison, eds. Research on Dolphins. Page(s) 281-321. Clarendon Press, Oxford: Oxford Scientific Publications.

Culik, B. (2000). Kogia sima (Owen, 1866). Review on Small Cetaceans: Distribution, Behaviour, Migration and Threats. [Online]. Convention on Migratory species (CMS). Available from: [Accessed: 12-Jul-2007].

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

Department of the Environment and Water Resources (DEW) (2007). National Whale and Dolphin Sightings and Strandings Database. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 12-Jul-2007].

Department of the Environment and Water Resources (DEW) (2007h). Industry Guidelines on the Interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales. [Online]. Available from:

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) (2008a). The South-West Marine Bioregional Plan: Bioregional Profile: A Description of the Ecosystems, Conservation Values and Uses of the South-West Marine Region. [Online]. Canberra: DEWHA. Available from:

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) (2008b). North-West Marine Bioregional Plan: Bioregional Profile: A Description of the Ecosystems, Conservation Values and Uses of the North-West Marine Region. [Online]. Canberra: DEWHA. Available from:

Duguy, R. (1994). Kogia breviceps (de Blainville, 1838) - Zwergpottwal. In: Niethammer J. & Krapp, F., eds. Handbuch der Sugetiere Europas Band 6: Meeressuger. Teil 1B: Wale unbd Delphine 2. Page(s) 598-614. Wiesbaden, Germany: Aula-Verlag.

Handley, C.O., Jr (1966). A Synopsis of the Genus Kogia (pygmy sperm whale). In: Norris, K.R., ed. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Page(s) 62-69. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Jefferson, T.A., S. Leatherwood & M.A. Webber (1993). FAO species identification guide. Marine Mammals of the World. [Online]. Rome: United Nations Environment Programme, Food and Agricultural Organization. Available from: [Accessed: 15-Aug-2007].

Laist, D.W., J.M. Coe & K.J. O'Hara (1999). Marine debris pollution. In: Twiss, J.R., Jr. & Reeves, R.R., eds. Conservation and Management of Marine Mammals. Page(s) 342-366. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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

Martin, J.W. & J.E. Heyning (1999). First record of Isocyamus kogiae Sedlak-Weinstein, 1992 (Crustacea, Amphipoda, Cyamidae) from the eastern Pacific, with comments on morphological characters, a key to the genera of the Cyamidae, and a checklist of Cyamids and their hosts. Bulletin Southern California Academy of Sciences. 98 (1):26-38.

McAlpine, D.F. (2002). Pygmy and dwarf sperm whales. In: Perrin, W.F., Wrsig, B. & Thewissen, J.G.M., eds. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Page(s) 1007-1009. San Diego, Academic Press.

Mullin K.D., Hoggard W., Roden C.L., Lohoefener R.R., Rogers C.M. & Taggart, B. (1994). Cetaceans on the upper continental slope in the north-central Gulf of Mexico. Fishery Bulletin. 92:773-786.

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.

Perez C., A. Lopez , M. Sequeira, M. Silva, R. Herrera, J. Goncalves, P. Valdes P, L. Mons, L. Freitag, S. Lens & O. Cendrero (2001). Stranding and by-catch of cetaceans in the Northeastern Atlantic during 1996. Copenhagen Denmark: Ices.

Reeves, R.R., B.D. Smith, E.A.Crespo, & G. Notarbartolo di Sciara, eds. (2003). Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World's Cetaceans. Switzerland and Cambridge: IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland.

Rice, D.W. (1998). Marine mammals of the world. Systematics and distribution. Special publication number 4. Kansas: Society for Marine Mammalogy.

Ross, G.J.B. (1979b). Records of pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, genus Kogia, from southern Africa, with biological notes and some comparisons. Annals of the Cape Provincial Museums (Natural History). 11(14):259-327.

Ross, G.J.B. (1984). The smaller cetaceans of the south-east coast of southern Africa. Annals of the Cape Provincial Museums (Natural History). 15:173-411.

Ross, G.J.B. (2006). Review of the Conservation Status of Australia's Smaller Whales and Dolphins. Page(s) 124. [Online]. Report to the Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra. Available from:

Santos, R.A. & M. Haimovici (1998). Cephalopods in the diet of marine mammals stranded or incidentally caught along Southeast and Southern Brazil (21° to 34° S). Copenhagen Denmark: Ices.

Scott, M.D. & J.G. Cordaro (1987). Behavioural observations of the Dwarf Sperm Whale, Kogia simus. Marine Mammal Science. 3(4):353-354.

Tarpley, R.J. & S. Marwitz (1993). Plastic debris ingestion by cetaceans along the Texas coast: Two case reports. Aquatic Mammals. 19(2):93-98.

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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). Kogia breviceps in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Thu, 21 Aug 2014 14:31:19 +1000.