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Facts about whales

Whales are amazing! They live their whole lives in water and have a lot of special qualities. Although they couldn’t look more different than human beings, we have so much in common!

Whales are social, air breathing mammals, they feed their babies with their own milk, and they take extraordinarily good care of their young and teach them life skills.

Many of us believe whales are special; they certainly invoke a sense of wonder and a feeling of kinship. There is something almost other-worldly about them. Whales enrich the lives of many people who come into contact with them. Whales are unique, beautiful, graceful and mysterious; they nurture, bond, play, sing and cooperate with one another. Here are some extraordinary facts about whales and their lives in the oceans.

Humpback whale

How many species of whales are there?

There are currently 90 recognised species of whales, dolphins and porpoises; they are collectively known as ‘cetaceans’ or simply ‘whales’. There are 14 baleen whales, 3 sperm whales, 22 beaked whales, 2 monodontidae (narwhal and beluga), 38 oceanic dolphins, 4 river dolphins and 7 porpoises.

Cetaceans are broadly divided into two groups, depending on whether they have teeth (odontocetes) or baleen (mysticetes).

Baleen whales are sometimes called the ‘great whales’ due to their overall larger size. There are 14 baleen whales altogether: these whales have baleen plates in their mouths to sift their food - plankton, krill (little shrimps) and small fish - from seawater.

Toothed whales account for all the remaining 76 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises and they all have varying numbers of teeth. Toothed whales eat mainly larger fish, squid, octopus and at times, other marine mammals.

So which cetaceans do we call ‘whales’? It isn’t very scientific but whales include all the baleen whales and the larger toothed whales such as the sperm whale, beluga, narwhal, and the beaked whales.

How do whales feed?

Baleen whales and toothed whales feed very differently. Baleen whales extract their prey from seawater as it flows through, or is forced through their baleen plates using their tongues and sometimes their throat muscles. They eat mainly small shrimplike krill, copepods and fish.

Baleen is made out of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair, and so it is strong and flexible. Hundreds of overlapping baleen plates grow downwards from the roof of the whale’s mouth, like multi-layered curtains. The number, size and colour of the baleen plates are unique for each whale species.

Baleen whales are all essentially filter feeders but their feeding techniques vary; the humpback and blue whale are gulpers – they open their mouths wide and gulp enormous mouthfuls of seawater, their prey gets caught amongst the baleen plates as the seawater is pushed back out through them. Bowhead and right whales are skim feeders, they swim along with their mouths half open, allowing sea water to flow through their baleen and trap plankton. Gray whales swim on their sides along the bottom of the ocean floor and suck up mud and water; they use their baleen to filter out tiny crustaceans from this sludge.

Toothed whales (and dolphins and porpoises) all have teeth - the number, size and position of their teeth varies from species to species. They hunt mainly fish, squid and octopus using their sophisticated sonar systems – echolocation – to find and target their prey. Toothed whales generally use their teeth to grab and hold on to their prey before swallowing it. Some may also use their teeth for tearing and breaking up prey. Some beaked whales have only two to four teeth, they are squid eaters and are thought to suck in squid and swallow them whole.

Which whale has the biggest teeth?

Male narwhals definitely win the prize for the longest tooth. They grow one canine tooth, or tusk, which sticks straight out at the front of their mouths and grows up to 3m (9ft) long – it looks just like a jousting lance used in modern-day competitions. The narwhal’s sword-like tusk grows in a counter clockwise spiral and pokes right through the upper left-hand side of the mouth. The narwhal’s tusk is thought to be a male sexual trait similar to the antlers in male deer or the mane of a male lion. Very rarely, a female narwhal will grow a tusk or a male will grow two tusks. Ironically inside their mouths, narwhals do not have any teeth at all!

The whale with the biggest full set of teeth is the sperm whale. Sperm whales have 40 to 52 cone-shaped teeth, up to10 to 20cm (4 to 8in) long, in their narrow lower jaws only. Each tooth is heavy and weighs as much as one kilogram.

Biggest toothed whale

Sperm whales are the biggest toothed whales. Males are much bigger than females and grow up to 19.2m (63ft) which is a bit longer than a ten pin bowling lane or as volley ball court, and can weigh up to 57 tonnes (57,000kg or 125,664lb).

What is a baleen whale?

There are 14 species of baleen whale including the blue, bowhead, right, humpback, minke and grey whale. Baleen whales are generally larger than toothed whales except for the sperm whale which is very big and has teeth. Many baleen whales migrate annually, travelling long distances between cold water feeding areas and warm water breeding areas.

All baleen whales have baleen instead of teeth which they use to collect shrimp-like krill, plankton and small fish from the sea. These bristly baleen plates filter, sift, sieve or trap the whales’ favourite prey from seawater inside their mouths.

Baleen whales are grouped into four families and they range in size from the blue whale which can grow up to 33m (108ft) long, to the pygmy right whale, which is 6.5m (21.33ft) long. Baleen whales have two blowholes (nostrils) on the top of the head and so their blows are bushier than those of toothed whales who have a single blowhole.

Some baleen whales including the humpback, minke, fin and blue, have clearly visible throat grooves which allow their mouths and throats to expand and balloon out as they gulp monstrous-sized mouthfuls of seawater and food.

Baleen whales evolved from toothed whale ancestors. The number, size and colour of the baleen plates are unique for each whale species.

Whale records

Some amazing figures from the world of whales.

species of whale
Baleen of bowhead whale
metres long
Blue whale heart pumps
litres around the body
Cuvier's beaked whale dives
Sperm whale brain
kg in weight
Fin whales can swim
kph in short bursts

The biggest whale

Which is the biggest whale?

The blue whale is not only the biggest whale living today; the blue whale is the biggest creature ever to have lived on Earth. They are mind-bogglingly gigantic; much larger than any of the dinosaurs. Blue whales and the other ocean giants live their whole lives in seawater, where their bodies are fully supported. What magnificent, incredible creatures they are!

Blue whales commonly reach the colossal length of 29m (95ft), that’s roughly as long as three London red double-decker buses parked end to end, or the full length of a netball court. Blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere are generally larger than those in the Northern Hemisphere and female blues are larger than males.

The longest blue whale on record is a female measured at a South Georgia whaling station in the South Atlantic (1909); she was 33.58m (110ft 17in). The heaviest blue whale was also a female hunted in the Southern Ocean, Antarctica, on 20 March 1947. She tipped the scales at 190 tonnes (418,878 lb) which is equivalent to about 30 elephants or 2500 people.

Blue whales are now extremely rare due to uncontrolled commercial whaling. Some populations could be endangered to the point of extinction.

How big is a blue whale baby?

Not surprisingly perhaps, the biggest mothers on Earth give birth to the biggest babies; baby blue whales are truly bonny babies! A newborn blue whale is 6-8m (20-26ft) long and weighs up to three tonnes (3000kg or 6,613lb), that’s heavier than an adult male rhino. The baby feasts on mum’s fat-laden milk (it is 40-50% fat) and drinks about 225 litres (about enough to fill a bath) every day, gaining about 4kg an hour. This is the fastest growth rate of any creature on Earth; the baby gains up to 100kg (220lbs) in body weight every day. In other words the baby puts on a tonne in weight every 10 days!

A blue whale baby is weaned at 7-9 months old when they measure about 15m (49ft) from nose to tail.  The mother and baby stay together for about a year in total and the youngster will reach maturity at 5-15 years old. Blue whales are thought to live for 70 – 80 years.

Blue whale

Which whale has the biggest brain?

The largest brain on Earth belongs to the sperm whale. The volume of their super-sized brains is 8000 cubic centimetres, which is more than five times the volume of ours - 1300 cubic centimetres. A sperm whale’s brain weighs up to 9kg (almost 20lbs) which is the weight of a small dog and 6 times heavier than a human brain.

In evolutionary terms, we humans have only had the big brains we do now for about 200,000 years; in contrast, the current size of the sperm whale brain has changed little from that of its cetacean ancestors, which evolved some 55 million years ago.

Sperm whales have huge heads – they account for up to a third of their overall body length. Most of the space inside their heads is taken up not by their brains but by a large cavity filled with yellowish fine oil called spermaceti. This oil was valuable to whalers who sold it for oil lamp fuel, to make candles, creams and ointments. The sperm whale’s unique spermaceti organ plays an important role in echolocation (whale navigation and ability to ‘see with sound’).

Whale song

A whale song is a long, patterned sequence of sounds. Whale songs are not genetically hard-wired like mating calls; their songs are complex and must be learned from other whales. Blue whales, fin whales, bowhead whales, minke whales, sperm whales and humpback whales all sing. Humpback whale songs have even appeared in the album charts.

Longest and Most Complex Songs

Male humpback whales are the best-known singers; their songs are beautiful, complex and ever-evolving. Their songs can last for up to 30 minutes and feature various themes sung in a sequence that is common to all males in the same breeding area that year. The sounds they sing span 7 octaves, nearly the entire range of a piano. During the winter mating season, they repeat their songs over and over for hours at a time and gradually change them as the breeding season progresses. Each year a new song is produced.

Simplest Songs

To humans the simplest-sounding songs are sung by fin whales. Singing fin whales produce repetitive, powerful low frequency pulses and so their songs feature a simple, long down sweep in frequency and often a simultaneous high frequency part, both are repeated over and over. It is thought that the fin whale song is part of a male mating display.

Lowest Songs

The lowest frequency songs are sung by blue whales and scientists have discovered that their voices are getting lower and deeper each year. Blue whales are also loud; their sounds have measured to reach 186 decibels (only the sperm whale is louder).

Scientists have discovered that blues can sing for days and have found 11 different song types around the world that may correspond to distinct populations of blue whales. They have also found that blue whales migrate over large distances and produce songs throughout the year, at their tropical breeding grounds, during migration, and on their feeding grounds.

Most diverse songs

Bowheads have the greatest number and diversity of songs of all whales and they like to improvise, just like jazz musicians.   In fact the diversity and variability of their songs is rivalled only by a few species of songbirds!

Recent studies recording bowhead whales singing all winter long under the Arctic ice have revealed they are creative singers. Bowhead whales sing loudly from November to April during 24-hour darkness of the polar winter. Unlike other whales, bowheads produce lots of different songs each year, their songs are rich with variation; bowhead songs completely change within years and between years. Scientists have identified 184 distinct melodies recorded in one area over a three year period.

More research is required to further understand the purpose of the singing and reason for the song diversity. It is also not known if both males and females sing or, as in humpbacks, it is only the males singing.

bowhead whale

Evolution of whales

How did whales evolve?

Looking at a whale’s body and biology, there are plenty of clues that their ancestors lived on land. They breathe air and nurse their young with their own milk, they also have paddle-shaped flippers which encase hand bones with five ‘fingers’. As embryos, whales have tiny back limbs which disappear before birth.

Hippos are the closest living relatives of whales, but they are not the ancestors of whales. Both hippos and whales evolved from four-legged, even-toed, hoofed (ungulate) ancestors that lived on land about 50 million years ago. Modern-day ungulates include hippopotamus, giraffe, deer, pig and cow. Unlike the hippo’s ancestor, whale ancestors moved to the sea and evolved into swimming creatures over a period of about 8 million years.

Fossils of gigantic ancient whales called Basilosaurus were first mistaken for dinasaur fossils but were later recognised as mammals. These prehistoric whales were more elongated than modern whales and had small back legs and front flippers. Their nostrils were situated halfway between the tip of the snout and the forehead and they had earbones just like those of modern whales. Basilosaurus shows the link or intermediate between whales and their terrestrial ungulate ancestors.

The theory is that some land living ungulates favoured munching on plants at the water’s edge which had the added advantage of allowing them to easily hide from danger in shallow water. Over time their descendants spent more and more time in the water and their bodies became adapted for swimming. Their front legs became flippers and a thick layer of fat called blubber replaced their fur coats to keep them warm and streamlined. Eventually, their tails became bigger and stronger for powerful swimming and their back legs shrunk. Gradually, their nostrils moved to the top of their heads so that they could breathe easily without the need to tilt their heads while swimming.

Whale anatomy

Which whale live the longest?

Bowhead whales spend their whole lives in icy-cold, food-rich Arctic waters. They are slow moving and slow growing whales and don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 20 to 25 years old. Scientists now believe bowheads can live longer than humans and are amongst the longest-lived of all mammals. The maximum lifespan for bowheads is currently unknown, but multiple lines of evidence including stone harpoon tips found embedded in bowhead blubber and ageing analysis of their eye tissues, point to bowheads being able to live for at least up to 150 years and probably over 200 years.

bowhead whale killed in 2007 by Eskimos was found to have carried a harpoon point in its neck for more than a hundred years. Experts dated the harpoon to a New England factory active around 1880.

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