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Baleen whales
Temporal range: latest Eocene - Recent
Humpback Whale breaching
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Suborder: Mysticeti
Cope, 1891


Around 15 species, see below.

The Mysticeti [1] are one of the two suborders of the Cetacea.[2] They are often called baleen whales, or 'whalebone whales' or 'great whales'. Baleen whales have baleen plates for filtering food from water, instead of having teeth. This makes them different from the Odontoceti.

The difference is connected with feeding. Baleen whales strain plankton out of the water, whereas the toothed whales eat larger prey.

The suborder contains four families and fourteen species.[3]

Baleen[change | edit source]

Baleen whales do not have teeth, except as embryos. Fossil adult baleen whales did have teeth, but modern adults have only baleen. The embryo teeth are replaced by baleen, which look like a curtain of long plates hanging down from the top of the whale's mouth.[4] Those plates might be 12 feet long, and a foot or more wide. Looking at them from the outside, they look like straight knives hanging down, but from the inside, they are like a big toothbrush or comb. Baleen is made of keratin, a tissue also found in mammalian hair and nails.[4]

Feeding[change | edit source]

A baleen whale uses its baleen to eat. In order to feed, a baleen whale opens its mouth widely and scoops in dense shoals of plankton and other small prey (such as krill, copepods, small fish and sometimes birds that happen to be near the shoals), together with a large volume of water.

The whale then partly shuts its mouth and presses its tongue against its upper jaw, forcing the water to pass out sideways through the baleen, thus sieving out the prey which it then swallows.[4]

Anatomy[change | edit source]

Baleen whales are generally larger than toothed whales, and females are larger than males. This group includes the largest living animal species, the Blue Whale.

Baleen whales have two blowholes, so they will have a V-shaped blow.

Breaching[change | edit source]

Although they are very heavy, baleen whales are able to jump completely out of the water. Humpback Whales are known for their jumping skills, but other baleen whales also jump out from the water with their body or beat it loudly with their fins. Nobody knows for sure why the whales do this. It may be a type of communication.

Importance to humans[change | edit source]

From the 11th to the late 20th centuries, baleen whales were hunted for their oil and baleen. Their oil can be made into margarine and cooking oils. Baleen was used to stiffen corsets, as parasol ribs, and to crease paper.

References[change | edit source]

  1. The scientific name comes from the Greek word mystidos, which means 'unknowable'.
  2. The other being the Odontoceti, or toothed whales.
  3. Mead, James G. & Brownell, Robert L. Jr. 2005. Order Cetacea (pp. 723-743). In Wilson, Don E. and Reeder, DeeAnn M. eds. Mammal species of the World: a taxonomic and geographic reference. 3rd ed, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Fudge D.S., Szewciw L.J. and A.N. Schwalb. 2009. Morphology and development of blue whale baleen: an annotated translation of Tycho Tullberg's classic 1883 paper. Aquatic Mammals 35(2):226-252.