What is a Whale?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Whales live in the ocean and are mammals.
Whales live in the ocean and are mammals.

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.

Humpback whales are plankton eaters.
Humpback whales are plankton eaters.

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.

The Cetacea order also includes dolphins.
The Cetacea order also includes dolphins.

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.

The blue whale is the world's largest animal.
The blue whale is the world's largest animal.

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.

Baleen whales feed on plankton (such as the water-flea plankton) , krill, and microscopic crustaceans.
Baleen whales feed on plankton (such as the water-flea plankton) , krill, and microscopic crustaceans.

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.

Sperm whales are the largest carnivores alive.
Sperm whales are the largest carnivores alive.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments

anon327141

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

FrameMaker

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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