Bottlenose dolphin breaching in the bow wave of a boat
Dolphins are marine mammals that are closely related to whales and porpoises. There are almost forty species of dolphin in 17 genera. They vary in size from 1.2 m (4 ft) and 40 kg (90 lb) (Maui's dolphin), up to 9.5 m (30 ft) and 10 tonnes (9.8 long tons; 11 short tons) (the orca or killer whale). They are found worldwide, mostly in the shallower seas of the continental shelves, and are carnivores, mostly eating fish and squid. The family Delphinidae is the largest in the Cetacean order, and evolved relatively recently, about ten million years ago, during the Miocene. Dolphins are among the most intelligent animals, and their often friendly appearance and seemingly playful attitude have made them popular in human culture.
Dolphins, along with whales and porpoises, are descendants of terrestrial mammals, most likely of the Artiodactyl order. The ancestors of the modern day dolphins entered the water roughly 50 million years ago, in the Eocene epoch.
Dolphins have a streamlined fusiform body, adapted for fast swimming. The tail fin, called the fluke, is used for propulsion, while the pectoral fins together with the entire tail section provide directional control. The dorsal fin, in those species that have one, provides stability while swimming. Though it varies by species, basic coloration patterns are shades of grey, usually with a lighter underside, often with lines and patches of different hue and contrast.
The head contains the melon, a round organ used for echolocation. In many species, elongated jaws form a distinct beak; species such as the bottlenose have a curved mouth which looks like a fixed smile. Some species have up to 250 teeth. Dolphins breathe through a blowhole on top of their head. The trachea is anterior to the brain. The dolphin brain is large and highly complex, and is different in structure from that of most land mammals.
Dolphins occasionally leap above the water surface, and sometimes perform acrobatic figures (for example, the spinner dolphin). Scientists are not certain about the purpose(s) of the acrobatics. Possibilities include locating schools of fish by looking at above-water signs like feeding birds, communicating with other dolphins, dislodging parasites or simple amusement.