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Whales are the largest species of exclusively aquatic placental mammals, members of the order Cetacea, which also includes dolphins and porpoises. They are the largest mammals, the largest vertebrates, and the largest animals in the world.

The term whale is ambiguous: it can refer to all cetaceans, to just the larger ones, or only to members of particular families within the order Cetacea. The latter definition is the one followed here. Whales are those cetaceans which are neither dolphins (i.e. members of the families Delphinidae or Platanistoidea), nor porpoises. This can lead to some confusion because Orcas ("Killer Whales") and Pilot Whales have "whale" in their name, but they are dolphins for the purpose of classification.


Origins and taxonomy

Whales, along with dolphins and porpoises, are descendants of land-living mammals, most likely of the Artiodactyl order. They entered the water roughly 50 million years ago. See evolution of cetaceans for the details [1].

Cetaceans are divided into two suborders:

  • The baleen whales are characterized by the baleen, a sieve-like structure in the upper jaw made of keratin, which they use to filter plankton from the water. They are the largest whales.
  • The toothed whales have teeth and prey on fish and/or squid. An outstanding ability of this group is to sense their surrounding environment through echolocation.

A complete up-to-date taxonomical listing of all cetacean species, including all whales, is maintained at the Cetacea article.


Like all mammals, whales breathe air into lungs, are warm-blooded (that is, endothermic), breast-feed their young, and have some (although very little) hair. The whales' ancestors lived on land, and their adaptions to a fully aquatic life are quite striking: The body is fusiform, resembling the streamlined form of a fish. The forelimbs, also called flippers, are paddle-shaped. The end of the tail holds the fluke, or tail fins, which provide propulsion by vertical movement. Although whales generally do not possess hind limbs, some whales (such as sperm whales, baleen whales, and humpback whales) have been seen having rudimentary hind limbs; some even with feet and digits. Most species of whale bear a fin on their backs known as a dorsal fin.

Beneath the skin lies a layer of fat, the blubber. It serves as an energy reservoir and also as insulation. Whales have a four-chambered heart. The neck vertebrae are fused in most whales, which provides stability during swimming at the expense of flexibility.

Whales breathe through blowholes, located on the top of the head so the animal can remain submerged. Baleen whales have two; toothed whales have one. When exhaling after a dive, a spout can be seen from the right perspective, the shape of which differs among the species. Whales have a unique respiratory system that lets them stay underwater for long periods of time without taking in any oxygen. Some whales, such as the Sperm Whale, can stay underwater for up to two hours holding a single breath.

Especially noteworthy is the Blue Whale, the largest known animal that has ever lived. It may be up to 30 meters long and weigh 180 tons.


Humpback whale tail flip off coast of Moloka'i, Hawai'i, 2005
Humpback whale tail flip off coast of Moloka'i, Hawai'i, 2005

Main article: Whale behaviour

Whales are broadly classed as predators, but their food ranges from microscopic plankton to very large fish. Males are called bulls; females, cows. The young are called calves.

Because of their environment (and unlike many animals), whales are conscious breathers: They have to decide when to breathe. So how do they sleep? All mammals sleep, and so do whales, but they cannot afford to fall unconscious state for too long, since they need to be conscious in order to breathe. The solution is that only one hemisphere of their brains sleeps at the time, so that whales are never completely asleep, but still get the rest they need. Whales "sleep" around 8 hours a day.

Whales also communicate with each other using beautiful lyrical type sounds. Being so large and powerful these sounds are also extremely loud and can be heard for many miles. They have been known to generate about 20,000 acoustic watts of sound at 163 decibels.

Whale females give birth to a single calf. Nursing time is long (more than one year in many species), which is associated with a strong bond between mother and young. In most whales reproductive maturity occurs late, typically at seven to ten years. This strategy of reproduction spawns few offspring, but provides each with a high rate of survival.

The genital organs are retracted into cavities of the body during swimming, so as to be streamlined and reduce drag. Most whales do not maintain fixed partnerships during mating; in many species the females have several mates each season. At birth the newborn is delivered tail-first, so the risk of drowning is minimized. Whale mothers nurse the young by actively squirting the fatty milk into their mouths, a milk that according to German naturalist Dieffenbach, bears great similarities to cow's milk.

Whale intelligence

For more material in this area, focusing more on dolphins, see cetacean intelligence.

Many people believe that cetaceans in general, and whales in particular, are highly intelligent animals. This belief has become a central argument against whaling (killing whales for food or other commercial reasons).

There is no universally agreed definition of "intelligence." One commonly used definition is "the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience." Some have claimed that whales can do most or all of these things, at a level equal to, or superior to, humans. Proponents of whale intelligence cite the social behavior of whales and their apparent capacity for language as evidence of a sophisticated intellect. Given the radically different environment of whales and humans, and the size of whales compared to (say) dolphins or chimpanzees, it is extremely difficult to test these views experimentally.

One traditional indicator of intelligence is brain capacity, since humans have bigger brains than most other animals. Whales have the largest brain of any animal. A typical sperm whale brain weighs about 7.8 kg, whereas a typical human brain weighs about 1.5 kg. While it may seem that this would indicate that five times greater intelligence, in mammals brain size is in approximate ratio to body size, and most of the extra capacity is used to manage the larger body.

A more precise indicator is the brain-body ratio: the size of the brain compared to body mass. Here humans have a decisive advantage. A human brain comprises about 2% of the human body mass, while the sperm whale's brain comprises only 0.02% of its body mass. A cow's brain is four times as large as a whale's on this measurement. On the other hand, a large proportion of a whale's body mass is blubber, which requires no brain power, and this distorts the ratio somewhat. Nevertheless, it is clear that brain size is not a decisive criterion. Hummingbirds have an even higher brain-to-body ratio than humans.

The next consideration is the structure of the brain. It is generally agreed that the growth of the neocortex, both absolutely and relative to the rest of the brain, during human evolution, has been responsible for the evolution of intelligence, however defined. In most mammals the neocortex has six layers, and its different functional areas (vision, hearing, etc) are sharply differentiated. The whale neocortex, on the other hand, has only five layers, and there is little differentiation of these layers according to function. This has led some to argue that the whale brain has not significantly evolved since the distant ancestors of the whale took to a marine lifestyle about 50 million years ago.

From an evolutionary point of view, this is consistent with the principles of natural selection. Intelligence does not arise spontaneously: like any other animal capacity, it evolves under the pressure of the animal's environment. The human brain has evolved under the pressure of natural selection in a hostile terrestrial environment. The key primate characteristics - bipedalism and the opposable thumb - gave the early hominids the ability to manipulate their environment through the use of technology (by making tools). This unique adaptation created a virtuous cycle: tool-making gave those hominids with larger brains a decisive evolutionary advantage, leading to larger and more sophisticated brains, and thus to more tool-making. This process explains the exponential growth of hominid intelligence over the past million years.

By contrast, the whale has faced no such environmental stimuli to brain evolution. Whales live in an unchanging and benign environment with few natural predators. Their sole adaptation to their marine environment has been increasing size. The whale's lifestyle consists of swimming and eating, tasks which fish perform perfectly competently with very small brains. From an evolutionary point of view, there is no reason for whales to have evolved intelligence, since their survival does not require them to perform any tasks for which intelligence is necessary.

It is certainly true that whales have a sophisticated social system, and that their communication system may contain some of the elements of true language, although our knowledge of whale communications is not very advanced. These capacities are sometimes confused with intelligence. But many other animals, including insects, have complex social systems, and many others, such as birds, have sophisticated communications. Whales also have very acute hearing, which gives them advanced echo-location capacities analogous to sonar - but so do bats. All this has led many (though far from all) zoologists to the conclusion that there is no convincing evidence for superior whale intelligence.

Whales and Humans

Main article Whaling

Most species of large whales are endangered as a result of large-scale whaling during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For centuries large whales have been hunted for oil, meat, baleen and ambergris (a perfume ingredient from the intestine of sperm whales). Until the middle of the 20th century, whaling left many populations nearly or fully extinct. The International Whaling Commission introduced an open ended moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986. For various reasons some exceptions to this moratorium exist; current whaling nations are Norway, Iceland and Japan and the aboriginal communities of Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada. For details, see whaling.

Several species of small whales are caught as bycatch in fisheries for other species. In the tuna fishery in the Eastern Tropical Pacific thousands of dolphins used to drown in purse-seine nets, until measures to prevent this were introduced. Fishing gear and deployment modifications, and eco-labelling (dolphin-safe brands of canned tuna), have contributed to an estimated 96% reduction in the mortality of dolphins by tuna fishing vessels in recent years. In many countries, small whales are still hunted for food, oil, meat or bait.

Environmentalists have long argued that some cetaceans including whales are endangered by sonar used by advanced navies. In 2003 British and Spanish scientists have suggested in Nature that the sonar is connected to whale beachings and to signs that the beached whales have experienced decompression sickness (see a BBC report about the Nature article or the Nature article itself (requires subscription)). Mass whale beachings do occur amongst many species (most of them are beaked whales that make use of echolocation system for deep diving). The frequency and size of beachings around the world, recorded over the last 1000 years in religious tracts and more recently in scientific surveys, has been used to estimate the changing population size of various whale species by assuming that the proportion of the total whale population beaching in any one year is constant (reference?).

Despite the concerns raised about sonar which may invalidate this assumption, this population estimate technique is still popular today. Researchers in the area (Talpalar & Grossman, 2005) support that is the combination between high pressure environment of deep-diving together with the disturbing effect of the sonar which causes decompression sickness and stranding of whales. Thus, an exaggerated startle response occurring during deep diving may alter orientation cues and produce rapid ascension. This hypothesis is based on direct effect of high pressure in the central nervous system of mammals: depression of synaptic activity and increased neural excitability.

Following public concern, the US Defense department has been ordered by the US judiciary to strictly limit use of its Low Frequency Active Sonar during peacetime. Attempts by the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to obtain a public inquiry into the possible dangers of the Royal Navy's equivalent (the "2087" sonar launched in December 2004) have so far failed. The European Parliament on the other hand has requested that EU members resist using the powerful sonar system until an environmental impact study has been carried out. [2]

Conservationists are also concerned that seismic testing used for oil and gas exploration may also damage the hearing and echolocation capabilities of whales. They also suggest that disturbances in magnetic fields caused by the testing may also be responsible for beaching. See e.g. Seismic testing and the impacts of high intensity sound on whales, Lindy Weilgart, Department of Biology Dalhouise University (PDF format) or a typical press release from Greenpeace on the issue

Whales in culture

The King James Version of the Bible mentions whales four times: "And God created great whales" (Genesis 1:21); "Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me? (Job 7:12); "Thou art like a young lion of the nations, and thou art as a whale in the seas (Ezekiel 32:2); and "For as Jonas [sic] was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40).

Nevertheless, the passages in question do not unambiguously refer to whales; modern translations tend to use other terms; for example the New International Version uses "creatures of the sea"; "monster of the deep"; "monster"; and "huge fish" respectively.

The Book of Jonah (in the King James and some other translations) does not use the word "whale" at all, referring throughout to a "fish" or a "great fish": "Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." (Jonah 1:17). This detail was used to dramatic effect in Clarence Darrow's cross-examination of fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 Scopes Trial, as depicted in the drama "Inherit the Wind" by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.

The hunting of whales is the subject of one of the classics of the English language literary canon, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Melville classed whales as "a spouting fish with a horizontal tail", despite science suggesting otherwise the previous century. Melville acknowledged "the grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters" but says that when he presented them to "my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket ... they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug." Melville's book is an extraordinary work, part adventure story, part metaphysical allegory, and part natural history; it is essentially a complete summary of nineteenth-century knowledge about the biology, ecology and cultural significance of whales.

Some cultures associate some level of divinity with the whale, such as in some places in Ghana and the Vietnamese, who occasionally hold funerals for beached whales, a throwback to Vietnam's ancient sea-based Austroasiatic culture.

Festivals celebrating whales have sprung in both Sitka and Kodiak Alaska. They feature speakers on marine biology and celebrate the creatures with art, music, whale-watching cruises, and symposiums.

See also

Further reading

  • Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises by Mark Carwardine, published by Dorling Kindersley, 2000. ISBN 0-7513-2781-6. Introductory guide to cetaceans.

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