What are the types of whales and how many species are there?
The scientific name for all groups (Order) of whales is called Cetacea. Cetaceans are divided into two suborders, Mysteceti and Odontoceti. Mysticetes includes all baleen whales (ex. blue whales, humpbacks, right whales). Odontocetes comprises toothed whales (including orcas, sperm whales, dolphins and porpoises).
Wait, dolphins you say? Yes, all dolphins are whales. There are around 90 different species of whales. A few of the whale species IFAW works with directly are the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale of which only about 360 individuals remain, humpback whales and minke whales.
Are whales fish or mammals?
Whales are mammals. Like all mammals, whales have lungs to breathe air, are warm-blooded, give birth to live young, and produce milk to nurse their young.
Fun fact: Did you know that all whales have hair on their body at some point in their lives? Whales are born with sensory hairs along their jaw and head. Most whales will shed these sensory hairs, but some will keep them! For example, the humpback whale has enlarged hair follicles on its head and jaw called tubercles, and each tubercle contains one sensory hair.
Is it true that whales are the largest animals on earth?
Whale size varies amongst species, but the title for the largest animal on earth belongs to the blue whale! Over 30 meters (100 feet) in length and weighing over 150 tons, blue whales are larger than any dinosaur that ever lived. How do they grow so large? A substantial portion of a blue whale’s diet is a tiny, lipid and calorie rich shrimp-like crustacean called krill. Krill can be found in dense swarms, allowing a blue whale to consume several tons a day!
How do whales feed and what do they eat?
Toothed whales (odontocetes) and baleen whales (mysticetes) have different methods of feeding. Toothed whales have—you guessed it—teeth that they use to capture prey like squid and fish. But they don’t use their teeth to chew food; instead, prey is swallowed whole or torn into smaller pieces to swallow. In place of teeth, baleen whales have hundreds of baleen plates that grow and hang down from their upper jaw. Baleen is a strong, flexible material that is made from keratin—the same material our hair and fingernails are made of. It’s used to filter smaller prey items, like plankton, krill, and small bait fish out of the water in large numbers. Sea water easily passes through baleen plates, while prey is caught in the hair-like fringe of the baleen inside the whale's mouth and then swallowed whole.
Do whales help the environment?
Yes! When whales dive deep into the ocean to feed, they excrete waste and circulate nutrients throughout the sea levels levels. These nutrients help feed critical marine species, like phytoplankton—tiny marine algae that produce more than 50% of the world’s oxygen! So to keep it simple, whales help support biodiversity in the ocean and life on land.
How long can whales hold their breath?
Adapted to ocean living, whales spend up to 80% percent of their lives beneath the surface. How long a whale can stay submerged varies between species. Humpback whales are capable of dives lasting up to an hour, but more commonly surface about every 3–7 minutes. One of the deepest-diving species, the Cuvier's beaked whale, can dive to depths of 3000 meters (1.9 miles) and stay submerged for over three hours. In fact, the species recently broke its previous dive record of just over two hours with a dive lasting an incredible three hours and forty-two minutes!
How do whales communicate?
Whales produce vocalizations to communicate using a variety of grunts, groans, pulses and whistles. Some vocalizations have a frequency range that is too high or low to be heard by the human ear, but can be picked up by specialized acoustic equipment. Blue whales produce some of the loudest vocalizations of all cetacean species, their soundwaves traveling hundreds of miles underwater to be heard by another whale. Some baleen whales, including blue and humpback whales sing complex songs to communicate. Researchers are working to decipher the meaning of these songs, but it is thought that males sing tunes to attract females during mating season.
Are whales friendly?
Some species of whales are very social animals. Toothed whales (odontocetes) travel in highly social groups called pods. Pods can be a few animals in number, or in the case of smaller toothed whales like dolphins, can be hundreds and even thousands of animals. They will hunt together, travel together, and help take care of each other’s young. In some cases, toothed whales are known to form close relationships with one another and even mourn the loss of a loved one. An example of this is an orca whale known as Tahlequah who carried her dead calf for 17 days straight while mourning in 2018.
Baleen whales (mysticetes) are a bit more solitary, coming together in short-term associations that can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few months. They may do so to take advantage of an abundant food supply or traveling together but will eventually separate. The closest association in baleen whales is the bond between a mother and calf.
How do whales reproduce?
Whales typically become sexually mature at about 6–9 years of age, although there are species that take much longer, up to 25 years, to reach maturity. The average calving interval for whales is around 2–3 years, with some whales calving in consecutive years, and others going many years between births. The gestation period is between 11–17 months, varying between species. Once born, whales will stay with their mothers for at least a year, with some mom and calf pairs spending up to three years together.
In humpback whales, males compete with other males in rowdy, aggressive groups called “heat runs” to win the right to mate with females on their breeding grounds. After successful mating, female humpbacks give birth to a single calf after a gestation period lasting around 11 months. Calves can weigh about one ton and are 10–15 feet (3–4.5 meters) in length at birth. Mother and calf will spend about a year together, with the calf nursing a milk that is rich in fat and protein to gain weight quickly. Calves can consume over 378 liters of milk, gaining up to 100lb (45 kg) each day! At around a year of age, humpback whale calves are weaned and on their own, having learned everything they need to know from their mother to survive.
How long do whales live?
The longevity of whales is still being studied. It is believed that most large whales (blue, humpback, fin) have a lifespan comparable to a human, and even greater! Whales have not been studied long enough to track an individual from birth to natural death. But it is thought that one of the longest living whale species is the bowhead whale, an Arctic species of baleen whale. In 2007, an Indigenous group hunting for subsistence found a bowhead whale that had an old harpoon tip lodged in its blubber. Biologists in a lab dated the harpoon to be 130 years old, leading researchers to believe that bowhead whales can live for over 200 years!
How do whales sleep?
Whales, like all cetaceans, are voluntary breathers, meaning they must remain alert to surface for a breath of air. Therefore, whales sleep by keeping one side of their brain active, alerting them to breathe, while the other half rests. They may sleep at the surface of the water, floating with little movement, a behavior called “logging” because of its resemblance to a floating log, or they may rest under the surface of the water in a vertical or horizontal position.
What are the greatest threats to whales?
Most threats to whales are human-caused. Some species of whales were once hunted commercially to near extinction. The North Atlantic right whale, for instance, was harvested for its oil-rich blubber, meat, and other parts. Today, commercial whaling is mostly illegal but continues in a few countries. IFAW has actively campaigned for policy and behavior change in Japan, Norway and Iceland for decades. In our fast-paced world today, vessel strikes cause injuries that can be quickly fatal or lead to a slow, agonizing death over the course of months to years. IFAW has informed significant changes to international shipping regulations, from Canada to Sri Lanka, and we created the Whale Alert mobile app to help mariners and citizen scientists alike protect these majestic animals. Entanglement in fishing gear is also a dire threat to whales. IFAW is working directly with the fishing industry and policy leaders to make ropeless gear a reality, removing vertical lines in the water that can entangle whales and other marine life. Another leading threat to marine mammals is ocean noise. Human activity like military sonar, commercial shipping, and offshore oil drilling cause underwater noise that creates a devastating maze of sound for marine animals. Ocean noise disorients whales, making it difficult for them to communicate, navigate, locate prey and find mates.
How can I help protect whales?
The actions we take today will determine the future for whales. Advocating for new legislative measures is one of the best actions you can take to support whales and marine life. Legislation that safeguards the ocean and protects marine habitat will benefit whales and all of the ocean’s biodiversity. If you live in the United States, ask your Members of Congress to support the SAVE Act—a bill that would help save right whales from ship strikes and entanglements. Ship strikes are one of the greatest threats against all whales. By reducing your ship speeds and advocating for ship speed limits, you can better protect whales from vessel strikes that would otherwise leave them severely injured or dead.
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