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What is a Whale?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A whale is a marine mammal in the order Cetacea, which also includes dolphins and porpoises. Technically, the term could be used to refer to any animal in this biological order, but by convention, it is reserved for particularly large representatives of the order. These animals can be found in all the oceans of the world, migrating to different regions for breeding and feeding, and the animals hold a popular mystique with humans, due to their impressive size and striking behaviors.

There are two basic types of whale. Toothed species have massive jaws and teeth for eating a varied diet of marine animals. Baleen whales are filter feeders, eating plankton and other small organisms. Baleen resembles a comb, and is made from keratin, the same tough fiber which makes up human hair and nails. Both types have horizontal split flukes, or tails, and front flippers. In addition, the animal has a blowhole to breathe through at the top of its head.

Unlike most animals, a whale decides when it should breathe. Some species are capable of remaining submerged for up to an hour before needing to resurface for fresh air. The animals expel water from the surface of their blowholes when they are preparing to breathe, leading to distinctive “spouts” which are used to spot the submerged mammals. Each species has a distinctive spout, allowing people to determine what species they are seeing.

There are numerous recognized species of whale, including grey, sperm, right, and humpback whales. The largest animal on Earth, the blue whale, is a baleen species. It also happens to be the loudest animal on Earth. These mammals can be quite noisy when they communicate, because the underwater environment can muffle sound. Many recordings of the distinctive melodious “songs” the animals use to communicate have been published around the world by marine researchers.

Some humans greatly enjoy going on whale watching trips, to see the animals first hand in their natural environment. During a trip, people can see the animals' behavior such as fluking, breaching, and spyhopping. When the animal flukes, it raises its tail above the water, sometimes bringing it down with an audible slapping noise. A spyhopping whale pokes its head up above the water, probably to investigate the surface environment. Breaching is the most impressive behavior to view, as the animal actually leaps out of the water, exposing most of its body to the air for a moment.

Concerns have been raised about the survival of whales, because many countries still hunt them, and the marine environment is slowly growing polluted due to human activity. Many researchers feel that the loss of these incredible mammals would be quite tragic, and they are making efforts to save these marine mammals for future generations to enjoy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a whale?

A whale is a marine mammal belonging to the order Cetacea, which also includes dolphins and porpoises. Whales are characterized by their large size, aquatic lifestyle, and adaptations such as a streamlined body, flippers, and a blowhole for breathing at the water's surface. They are warm-blooded, give birth to live young, and nurse them with milk.

How many species of whales are there?

There are approximately 90 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the order Cetacea. These are divided into two suborders: baleen whales (Mysticeti), which have baleen plates for filtering food from water, and toothed whales (Odontoceti), which have teeth and include species like the sperm whale and orca. Each group has a diverse range of species adapted to different marine environments.

What do whales typically eat?

Whale diets vary by species. Baleen whales, like the blue whale, consume small organisms such as krill and plankton, which they filter through their baleen plates. Toothed whales, such as orcas, have a more varied diet that can include fish, squid, and even other marine mammals. The sperm whale is known to dive deep in search of giant squid.

How long do whales live?

The lifespan of whales varies significantly among species. Some may live as few as 20 years, while others, like the bowhead whale, can live over 200 years. According to a study published in the journal "Science," bowhead whales have been found with harpoon tips lodged in them that date back to the 1800s, indicating their impressive longevity.

Are whales endangered?

Many whale species are considered endangered or vulnerable due to factors such as commercial whaling, habitat loss, and pollution. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains a Red List of threatened species, which includes several whale species. Conservation efforts and international agreements like the Moratorium on Commercial Whaling have been crucial in protecting these majestic creatures.

How do whales communicate?

Whales communicate using a variety of sounds, including clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. Humpback whales are famous for their complex songs, which can travel great distances underwater and are believed to play a role in mating behaviors. According to research, these vocalizations are essential for social interactions, navigation, and hunting in the ocean's depths.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon327141 — On Mar 26, 2013

What non-living things does a whale need to survive? I mean, seriously. I have a assignment.

By FrameMaker — On Jan 17, 2011

Is a whale shark a whale or a shark? Do they have whale blubber, or are they a completely different species? If a whale shark is a whale, would scientists categorize it as a toothed whale or a baleen whale?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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