Whale Baleen

From: Jennifer Philips (jphilips@hawaii.edu)
Date: Thu Jan 24 2002 - 02:21:20 EST

Hi i have a project to do on whales teeth and eating styles of the whale i
was just wondering if you had any tips
and pictures of the whales eating structure.


luke (15)

Hi Luke,

The great whales, or mysticetes (such as blues, humpbacks, or grays, for
example) do not actually have teeth at all. Instead, their mouths are full
of a fibrous material called "baleen" which they use to filter the water for
their prey. Baleen is made out of a similar material as your fingernails -
keratin - which is durable and flexible. How do whales eat using baleen?
This is how they do it. First, they come across a very large collection, or
school, or their favorite food - a little tiny 2-inch zooplankton called
krill. They then swim toward and through the school, allowing the water
containing the thousands of little critters to flow into their mouths and
out through the baleen plates. The fibrous plates filter the water for
anything it can hold onto, at which point the whale then uses its tongue to
lick the food off the plates. That is, in a nutshell, the basic method by
which whales use baleen to eat. The method I just described is called
skimming. The great whales use different methods, depending upon their
species and other specifics. Some are skimmers, as described above, others
are gulpers, and so on. Gulpers open their mouths WIDE, then close it down,
forcing the water through the baleen plates, trapping the food. Read these
links below about feeding methods and baleen.

Now, the other "whales" that we know of are not truly whales as I think you
mean in your question - rather they are basically dolphins with the word
"whale" in their name. They are known as the odontocetes, or "toothed
whales". Toothed whales have teeth, and eat much the way other animals with
teeth do. In general, toothed whales, including dolphins, killer whales,
sperm whales, etc., use their teeth to catch their prey. They then usually
swallow their prey whole, not using their teeth for any more than to catch
the food in the first place.


Thanks for your question to Whalenet!
Jen Philips

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