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 bare offspring.
Appearance and Features
Depending on the whales species their physical appearance and features can change dramatically.
As stated previously there are two suborders known as the toothed whale and baleen whale suborders.
Those that belong to the toothed whale suborder are born with teeth that can be used for consuming prey, showing aggression or self defense while cetaceans that belong to the baleen whale suborder possess baleen plates with bristles and use their bristles to filter their prey from the water.
Cetaceans that fall into the toothed whale suborder tend to be smaller and lighter than their baleen whale relatives.
For example the largest species of toothed whale is the sperm whale which can grow to lengths of up to 67 ft. long and weigh more than 50 tons., while the largest baleen whale is the blue whale which can exceed 90 ft. and weigh over 150 tons.
In addition to possessing teeth toothed whales are also capable of using echolocation to search for prey and navigate in areas where viability is low.
Oddly toothed whales are only born with one blowhole as apposed to the two blowholes that baleen whales possess.
One of the most common assumptions for this type of adaptation is that toothed whales developed one of their blowholes into an echolocation system to help them survive in the ocean.
When it comes to appearance toothed whales typically have streamlined bodies designed for fast swimming, however some species do have stockier bodies than others.
The shape of the head can change from one animal to the next.
Dolphins tend to have longer beaks than porpoises and whales and are also slimmer than many of the other cetaceans.
There light, thin bodies allow them to quickly accelerate and leap out of the water further than other marine mammals.
Porpoises tend to be stockier than the dolphin species and whales can vary in terms of how bulky or streamlined their body is.
When it comes to their teeth the number of teeth that a toothed whale possesses can vary significantly from one marine mammal to the next with species such as the narwhal only possessing two teeth (or rather tusks) while several of the dolphin species are known to possess over 200 teeth.
Although toothed whales possess teeth not all of them use their teeth to hunt for food.
Some toothed whales may only use their teeth to show aggression towards other whales or for self defense and will consume their prey whole.
In terms of diet most toothed whales stick to a diet consisting of fish, squid, octopus and various crustaceans.
A few species such as the killer whale and false killer whale have a much larger diet that can consist of consuming other marine mammals and sharks.
As mentioned before baleen whales are typically larger than toothed whales both in terms of size and overall weight, however they completely lack teeth.
Instead the baleen whale suborder is comprised solely of whales that possess baleen plates with bristles.
Due to the fact that these marine mammals lack teeth they hunt for their food by sifting their prey out of the water with their baleen bristles.
This is done by swimming towards their prey with their mouth open and catching their prey in the bristles which act like a filter by allowing water to escaping while preventing their prey from being able to get out of the tightly packed bristles.
Depending on the whales species the whale will either continuously skim the water with its mouth open or lunge towards a large swarm of prey and attempt to capture as many fish or krill as they possibly can in a single gulp.
Once the whale has captured enough prey it will push the water out with its tongue and swallow the remaining food.
Interestingly these marine mammals have a relatively small throat when compared to the size of its overall body.
Because of this baleen whales tend to stick to a diet that consists of small easily consumable prey.
Baleen whales are known to consume a variety of small fish, krill, squid and crustaceans and will avoid prey that is too large to easily swallow.
As mentioned earlier cetaceans can vary greatly in size from maui’s dolphin which can measure in at as little as 4 ft. long to the blue whale which can exceed 90 ft.
In order to swim these marine mammals have a tails with flukes that allow them to propel themselves through the water by moving their flukes up and down.
They also possess a pair of flippers that help them navigate and turn, role, rise and dive in the water.
The size and shape of the flippers are different for various cetaceans.
The humpback whale for instance has extremely large, long flippers than can measure 1/3 of its entire body while the bowhead whale has relatively short paddle shaped flippers when compared to the rest of its body.
Some cetaceans (not all) possess a dorsal fin which is located in its mid to lower back and can assist with stabilization when swimming.
The killer whale for example has a large dorsal fin that is either pointed or curved depending on the pod it belongs to.
The beluga whale on the other hand completely lacks the presence of a dorsal fin and the humpback whale has a large hump rather than a dorsal fin.
Although these marine mammals can vary in shape they are typically thickest in the belly region and taper down towards the head and flukes, but species such as the sperm whale are known for their large block shaped head which can make up a large portion of its overall size.
In terms of color most whales appear to be black, brown, dark gray, gray, light and/or white in color with cetaceans such as the amazon river dolphin having a pinkish skin tone.
Despite being called the blue whale this marine mammal looks closer to a grayish blue rather than a deep blue color, however when it dives the light distortion of the water gives this whale its deep blue appearance.
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.
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.
10 Whale facts you may not have known about
1) The largest known living animal is the blue whale which can grow to be over 100 ft. long and weigh 180 tons.
2) Although whales can grow to be quite large most species have throats that are too small to swallow a human.
3) The smallest known whale is the dwarf sperm whale which can grow to an average size of around 9 ft. long.
4) Baleen whales are born with two blowholes while toothed whale only possess one.
5) Whale poop is extremely important for feeding phytoplankton which remove carbon from the atmosphere.
6) Although whaling was once a highly lucrative business it is now illegal to hunt whales for commercial purposes.
7) Since the end of the whaling era whale watching has grown to become a billion dollar annual business.
8) Whales are part of the cetacean species which is made up of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
9) Because whales are marine mammals they breathe air, are warm-blooded, produce milk and bear offspring.
10) All whale species are divided into toothed whales and baleen whales depending on their characteristics.