Whale Species

All species of whale can be broken down into two subcategories which include baleen whales and toothed whales.

When combined with dolphins and porpoises there are currently around 80 different species of whale in existence today.

If you exclude dolphins and porpoises that number is closer to 30 – 40 different whale species.

If you’d like a specific list of the various whale species check out our Baleen Whale List and Toothed Whale List in the navigation section which breaks down each species by their common and scientific names.

Baleen whales (also referred to as the great whales) posses baleen plates.

With the exception of the sperm whale (a toothed whale) most baleen whales are relatively larger than their toothed whale counterparts.

Because they lack teeth baleen whales are unable to tear flesh or grip their prey, so instead they opt for a method known as filter feeding.

Filter feeding occurs when a whale swims toward a large group or school of small prey such as krill or fish with its mouth open.

By opening its mouth the whale is able to capture large amounts of easily digestible food.

It then closes its mouth and pushes the water out with its tongue.

The baleen plate’s act as a filter by allowing water to escape through the whale’s mouth while preventing larger objects such as fish and various other prey from escaping.

Baleen is often explained by comparing the baleen bristles to the teeth found on a comb.

Fine bristles run along the plates and provide enough spacing for water and debris to get through while being thick enough to prevent larger objects from escaping.

As stated earlier these whales do not have teeth so they often end up digesting their food whole, which is why they often choose small prey that’s easy to digest.

Since baleen whales are generally large creatures they rarely face threats from other marine animals.

On occasion smaller and younger baleen whales may face occasional attacks from sharks and killer whales, but attacks are seldom successful, especially among species that travel together and protect one another.

While not true of all species baleen whales can often be found traveling in cold regions due to their large size and relatively thick blubber, which protects them from the freezing waters, however they can also be found in warmer tropical climates, especially during mating season.

Toothed whales on the other hand are smaller than their baleen whale cousins and possess teeth instead of baleen plates.

Although all species of toothed whale are born with teeth the number of teeth they possess can vary greatly from one species to the next.

The Narwhal for example only has two teeth or tusks, one of which is typically much shorter than the other and may be used for combat rather than hunting.

Other species of toothed whale may have as many as 250 teeth.

Despite having teeth not all toothed whale species use their teeth for hunting and/or eating prey.

Some use their teeth simply to grab their prey and consume their food whole, while others such as the killer whale put their teeth to good use and use them to tear apart flesh for easier consumption.

Because toothed whales have teeth they tend to hunt for their food a bit differently than baleen whales.

While toothed whales may be found hunting for food alone they may also be seen traveling and hunting together.

Toothed whales are known for their group oriented hunting strategies that they use to isolate and capture prey.

One of the strategies these whales are known to use is called bait balling.

Bait balling occurs when a group of whales circle around a school of fish causing them to form into a small dense ball.

The whales will then take turns swimming through the ball of paralyzed fish and eat the defenseless and trapped prey.

Another strategy commonly found in shallow waters is to chase the fish into a shallow corner or wall making it difficult for them to escape while the group of whales attacks them.

Species such as the killer whale may use luring techniques designed to separate larger whales from their children so that they can make a successful kill.

In these cases killer whales will try to form an opening that will allow them to separate the defenseless child from its pod, while also being aware of their own vulnerabilities to prevent themselves from being harmed.

When hunting sharks killer whales may try to confuse a shark and flip it over on its back to paralyze it for an easy kill.

Due to their smaller size toothed whales are often just as focused on protecting themselves from harm as they are concerned with making an easy kill and are intelligent enough to form a strategy that involves both offensive and defensive positions and behaviors.

Aside from being smaller and possessing teeth toothed whales are also born with a single blowhole as compared to the two blowholes that are present in baleen whales.

While it isn’t fully known as to why they posses one blowhole instead of two there are several speculations that try to answer this question.

The first speculation is that over the years toothed whales developed an enhanced echolocation which evolved from the use of one of their nostrils and allows them to make and receive high-pitched frequencies.

Another speculation is that larger baleen whales require more oxygen and thus need a second blowhole in order to breathe properly.

While the true reason for these differences are unknown these speculations at least point us in a direction where we can make further assessments and hopefully understand why these differences exist among the two suborders.