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What is a Whale?

Humpback whales are plankton eaters.
Whales live in the ocean and are mammals.
The blue whale is the world's largest animal.
The Cetacea order also includes dolphins.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: Apfelweile, Temistocle Lucarelli, Grrlscientist, Irinano
  • Last Modified Date: 17 April 2014
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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. Whales 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 whales 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 whale types have horizontal split flukes, or tails, and front flippers. In addition, a whale has a blowhole to breathe through at the top of its head.

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

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

Some humans greatly enjoy going on whale watching trips, to see whales first hand in their natural environment. During a whale watching trip, people can see whale behavior such as fluking, breaching, and spyhopping. When a whale 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 whale behavior to view, as the whale 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 the whales for future generations to enjoy.

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Discuss this Article

anon327141
Post 2

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

FrameMaker
Post 1

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?

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