Dental Facts About Whales
Whales are marine mammals that dwell in the oceans and seas. The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, topping the charts at up to 100 feet in length and up to 200 tons in weight. Whales belong to the cetacean family, which also includes dolphins and porpoises. Within this family, scientists divide marine mammals into two groups: those with teeth and those with baleen plates. An exploration of whale dental patterns provides insightful information about the characteristics and behaviors of these animals.
Whales With Teeth
Whales with teeth use them to attack and consume their prey. Some whales have teeth, and all dolphins and porpoises have teeth. Approximately 65 different species of toothed whales exist. Toothed whales have one blowhole. These whales tend to be smaller in size than baleen whales. The sperm whale is usually the largest toothed whale. Whales within this suborder use their teeth differently. Some of them chew their food, while others swallow their prey whole. Some whales with teeth use them to demonstrate dominance, especially during the mating season. Whales possess a varying number of teeth, depending on the individual species. Some kinds of whales only have one or two teeth, while others might have 240 teeth or even more. Dental patterns can vary. Some toothed whales have teeth in both their upper and lower jaws. Other whales only have teeth in their lower jaws.
Toothed Whales and Hunting
Toothed whales use several tools for hunting. These whales use visual cues, and they make vocal sounds as they hunt. When hunting as a pod, they could work together to surround a group of fish. They may then herd the prey into a tight group before attacking. Other whales may swim right through a large group of prey, looking for the weakest ones to grab. Another hunting tactic involves cornering prey where it can’t escape before attacking. Sperm whales are one kind of toothed whale. These whales have been observed diving as far as 3,000 feet to capture a meal.
Hunting and Echolocation
Toothed whales use echolocation when hunting. Echolocation involves the production of sounds, which the whales use to find food and navigate underwater. These whales make sounds by moving air through their sinuses. When the sounds hit objects, they echo back through the jaw and middle ear of the whales. This gives the whales information about the location of prey. The extreme sensitivity of echolocation may even provide detailed information about the size and shape of prey. Echolocation also enables whales working in groups to hunt together, tracking and attacking as a group.
Whales Without Teeth
Baleen whales do not have teeth. Baleen whales have two blowholes, and they tend to be larger than toothed whales. Instead of teeth, whales in this group have special baleen plates with bristles that serve their dental needs. The bristles resemble teeth on a comb. Some bristles are fine, while others are more coarse, depending on the type of whale. When baleen whales hunt their prey, the swim toward it with their mouths open wide. In this fashion, they capture large groups of fish or other animals in their mouths along with seawater. The whales then sift out the animals and expel the seawater by pushing their tongues against the baleen bristles. The bristles effectively keep the animals from escaping while allowing water to flow through them. Some scientists call baleen whales “filter feeders” because of the way they capture their prey and filter out the unwanted seawater and sediment. With the absence of teeth, baleen whales do not chew their prey. Instead, they swallow the animals whole. For this reason, these whales usually hunt for small animals that they can swallow easily. For example, the average size of blue whale prey is less than two inches. Baleen whales have very small throats, in contrast to toothed whales. This is another reason for their preference for small prey. Baleen whales also use echolocation, but they use it differently than toothed whales. Scientists believe that baleen whales produce “songs” to communicate with each other.
Additional Resources on Whales
- Whales and Dolphins
- How Many Teeth Do Whales Have?
- Introduction to the Cetacea: Whales and Dolphins
- Gray Whales
- Cetacean Science Explained
- Overview of Whales
- Killer Whales
- Sei Whale (PDF)
- The Great Whales (PDF)
- Toothed and Baleen Whales “Feeding Frenzy”
- What Is a Cetacean?
- Ambulocetus as a Fossil Transitional
- Toothed Whales
- Whale Diversity
- Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins (PDF)
- Marine Mammal Vocalizations: Language or Behavior?
- Major Groups of Marine Mammals (PDF)
- Whales, Dolphin, and Sound
- Toothed Whales