While the term whale can sometimes refer to all cetaceans it usually excludes dolphins and porpoises.
The two primary types of whales (suborders) include the Odontoceti (toothed whale) which includes both dolphins and porpoises, and whales such as the sperm whale, killer whale, beluga whale and narwhal whale, and the Mysticeti (baleen whale) which includes the humpback whale, bowhead whale, blue whale and minke whale among others.
All whales share several physical characteristics with those who belong to the cetacean family.
They all have flippers designed for swimming, a tail with flukes used for navigating the water, and nasal openings (blowholes) for breathing, and because these animals are mammals they are warm-blooded, breathe air, produce milk and bear offspring.
Whales as a whole inhibit the entire worlds oceans and have an estimated annual growth rate of up to 15%.
It is currently estimated that there are over 80 different living species in existence today.
While there are currently over 1 millions whales living throughout the worlds oceans it is still difficult to accurately estimate their total population, and many of the species is now considered endangered.
In the past whales were hunted for their meat (a delicacy in some countries today) and for their blubber which was used to make raw materials such as cooking oil, soaps, transmission fluids and candles.
Because of this many whales species are endangered today.
It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that whales stopped being hunted (in most countries) due to the possibility of extinction and the creation of alternative resources which eventually caused the whaling industry to decline.
However, even with the many efforts put into place (including the construction of conversations) to protect the species there are still a few countries that hunt them for food and raw materials.
At the current moment people are considered the only primary predator to whales do to the fact that their large size and tough skin make them extremely difficult for most predators to successfully attack.
Migration (Mating and Feeding Season)
Whales have two primary seasons (with the exception of a few species) and will migrate between cold and warm climates during these two seasons.
During feeding months (the colder months of the year) whales eat a large variety of food.
Depending on the type of whale and where they live their diet can range greatly from small prey such as krill, squid, fish and even birds to marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and on very rare occasions other whales.
The types of food a whale eats isn’t necessarily determined by its size either.
During mating months (the warmer months of the year) some whales will forgo eating altogether, fasting and living strictly off of body fat and calories they consumed during feeding season.
Some whales can be very competitive during this time of the year and may even charge other male whales or horde female whales away in an attempt to mate and bear offspring with the female.
Males whales such as the humpback will also communicate by creating loud low-pitched melodic tones (also known as whale songs) and display their fitness and health by doing acrobatic stunts such as breaching and tail slapping which also helps show off their dominance and attract a female.
For whales the average gestation period can vary greatly ranging between 10 and 17 months depending on the species.
In many cases whales don’t maintain fixed partners and can mate with several other whales over its lifetime to maximize its chances of reproducing offspring.
On average a whale may bear a single offspring every 2 – 6 years while it is fertile.
In order to feed a new-born whale the female will feed their young by producing a thick milk (about 35-50% fat) from her mammary glands and shoot it through the water and into her baby’s mouth.
The thickness of the milk allows it to travel through the water without breaking up and contains vital nutrients for the baby whale.
The nursing/milking period for baby whales can be maintained for over a year if necessary.
In the context of a group or family males are often referred to as bulls, females are called cows and babies are commonly known as calves.
The average lifespan of whales can range from 20 – 200 years depending on the whales species and overall health.
Before whales lived in the ocean they (actually their ancestors) walked and hunted on land.
Several characteristics point to the ancestral origin of whales including the need to breathe air (unlike fish that have gills) despite living exclusively in the ocean, bones in their flippers which resemble limbs used for walking and hunting, and the vertical shape of their spines (more likely designed for running instead of swimming) as opposed the horizontal design and movement of fish.
Previous excavations have also dug up evidence of the whales evolutionary and physiological changes.
Ancestral bones show progressive cycles of change and transformation as whales moved from traveling on land to swimming in the oceans.
10 Whale facts you may not have known about
- The largest known living animal is the blue whale which can grow to be over 100 ft. long and weigh 180 tons.
- Although whales can grow to be quite large most species have throats that are too small to swallow a human.
- The smallest known whale is the dwarf sperm whale which can grow to an average size of around 9 ft. long.
- Baleen whales are born with two blowholes while toothed whale only possess one.
- Whale poop is extremely important for feeding phytoplankton which remove carbon from the atmosphere.
- Although whaling was once a highly lucrative business it is now illegal to hunt whales for commercial purposes.
- Since the end of the whaling era whale watching has grown to become a billion dollar annual business.
- Whales are part of the cetacean species which is made up of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
- Because whales are marine mammals they breathe air, are warm-blooded, produce milk and bear offspring.
- All whale species are divided into toothed whales and baleen whales depending on their characteristics.