Whalesare a widely distributed and diverse group of fully aquaticplacentalmarine mammals. They are an informal grouping within theinfraorderHYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetacea” o “Cetacea”Cetacea, usually excludingdolphinsandporpoises. Whales, dolphins and porpoises belong to the orderHYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetartiodactyla” o “Cetartiodactyla”Cetartiodactylawitheven-toed ungulatesand their closest living relatives are thehippopotamuses, having diverged about 40 million years ago. The twoparvordersof whales,baleen whales(Mysticeti) andtoothed whales(Odontoceti), are thought to have split apart around 34 million years ago. The whales comprise eightextantfamilies:HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balaenopteridae” o “Balaenopteridae”Balaenopteridae(therorquals),HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balaenidae” o “Balaenidae”Balaenidae(right whales),HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetotheriidae” o “Cetotheriidae”Cetotheriidae(the pygmy right whale),HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschrichtiidae” o “Eschrichtiidae”Eschrichtiidae(the gray whale),HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monodontidae” o “Monodontidae”Monodontidae(belugas and narwhals),HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physeteridae” o “Physeteridae”Physeteridae(the sperm whale),HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kogiidae” o “Kogiidae”Kogiidae(the dwarf and pygmy sperm whale), andHYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziphiidae” o “Ziphiidae”Ziphiidae(the beaked whales).
Whales are creatures of the open ocean; they feed, mate, give birth, suckle and raise their young at sea. So extreme is their adaptation to life underwater that they are unable to survive on land. Whales range in size from the 2.6metres(8.5ft) and 135 kilograms (298lb)dwarf sperm whaleto the 29.9metres(98ft) and 190 metric tons (210 short tons)blue whale, which is the largest creature that has ever lived. Thesperm whaleis the largest toothed predator on earth. Several species exhibitsexual dimorphism, in that the females are larger than males. Baleen whales have no teeth; instead they have plates of baleen, a fringe-like structure used to expel water while retaining thekrillandplanktonwhich they feed on. They use their throat pleats to expand the mouth to take in huge gulps of water.Balaenidshave heads that can make up 40% of their body mass to take in water. Toothed whales, on the other hand, have conical teeth designed for catching fish orsquid. Baleen whales have awell developedsense of “smell”, whereas toothed whales have well-developed hearing their hearing, that is adapted for both air and water, is so well developed that some can survive even if they are blind. Some species, such as sperm whales, are well adapted for diving to great depths to catch squid and otherfavouredprey.
Whales have evolved from land-living mammals. As such they must breathe air regularly, though they can remain submerged for long periods. They haveblowholes(modified nostrils) located on top of their heads, through which air is taken in and expelled in the form ofvapour. They arewarm-blooded, and have a layer of fat, orblubber, under the skin. With streamlinedfusiformbodies and two limbs that are modified into flippers, whales can travel at up to 20knots, though they are not as flexible or agile asseals. Whales produce a great variety of vocalizations, notably the extended songs of thehumpback whale. Although whales are widespread, most species prefer the colder waters of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and migrate to the equator to give birth. Species such as humpbacks and blue whales are capable of travelling thousands of miles without feeding. Males typically mate with multiple females every year, but females only mate every two to three years. Calves are typically born in the spring and summer months and females bear all the responsibility for raising them. Mothers of some species fast and nurse their young for one to two years.
Once relentlessly hunted for their products, whales are now protected by international law. TheNorth Atlantic right whalesnearly became extinct in the twentieth century, with a population low of 450, and theNorth Pacific gray whale populationis rankedCritically Endangeredby theIUCN. Besides whaling, they also face threats frombycatchand marine pollution. The meat, blubberandbaleenof whales have traditionally been used by indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Whales have been depicted in various cultures worldwide, notably by the Inuit and the coastal peoples of Vietnam and Ghana, who sometimes hold whale funerals. Whales occasionally feature in literature and film, as in the great white whale ofHerman Melville’sMoby Dick. Small whales, such asbelugas, are sometimes kept in captivity and trained to perform tricks, but breeding success has been poor and the animals often die within a few months of capture.Whale watchinghas become a form of tourism around the world.