Information about: Whale

Index | Whale

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Whale. The popular name of the larger cetaceans, particularly of all those belonging to the families Balaenidae and Physeteridae. In the Balaenidae the head is of enormous size, but is entirely destitute of teeth, instead of which the palate is furnished with an apparatus of baleen, or whalebone, for the purpose of straining out of the water the small crustaceans, which form the food of these whales. The fibrous structure of baleen, or whalebone, its elasticity, and its heaviness are well known. The plates of it in the mouth of a whale are very numerous, several hundreds being on each side of the mouth, and they are very closely placed together, so that the mouth is filled with them. The sulphur bottom whale of the Pacific Ocean is the largest of the Balaenidae, sometimes reaching a length of ninety-five feet. The baleen of such a whale weighs about 800 pounds. The head of whales usually occupies from a fourth to a third of the whole length. The lower surface of the true skin extends into a thick layer of blubber, an open network of fibers, in which fat is held. The blubber is from one foot to two feet in thickness, the whole mass in a large whale sometimes weighing more than thirty tons. The most important species is that known as the right whale or Greenland whale. It inhabits the seas of the northern parts of the world, and abounds chiefly in the arctic regions. It commonly attains a size of sixty or seventy feet in length. Although smaller than the sulphur bottom whale it furnishes large quantities of baleen and oil. A single specimen has yielded as much as 3,500 pounds of whalebone. The main physical characteristics of the whale are its distorted jaws, with upward directed nostrils, its great bulk, and rudimentary limbs. The huge bulk of the creature is driven forward by the flexible caudal fin, and while the body is rigid in front it exhibits great mobility behind. The blowholes are placed on the top of the head, and the animal can respire only when these are above water. The larger whales travel at the rate of about four miles an hour, but when pursuing their prey or goaded by pain they rush through the water at a much greater pace. They are aided in this by the broad and powerful tail, which is their chief organ of locomotion. Instead of being vertical, as in the fishes, this is horizontal, and the larger species can command immense driving power. The tail is also used as an offensive and defensive weapon. The blubber, the great object of the whalers, is at once dense and elastic, and, while it preserves the animal heat, it also serves to reduce the mighty bulk of the whale and to bring it nearer to the specific gravity of the element in which it spends its existence. It might be thought that the whale, with its vast bulk, would need sea creatures of a high organization to nourish it; but this is not so. Its chief food consists of minute mollusks and crustaceans, and with these its immense pasture grounds in the north seas abound.