Balaenoptera musculusblue whale

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Geographic Range

Blue whales are found in all oceans of the world, from the tropics to the drift ice of polar waters. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Habitat

Blue whales live in the open ocean. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Physical Description

Blue whales are slate to grayish blue and mottled with lighter spots, particularly on the back and shoulders. The undersides often become covered with microorganisms, giving the belly a yellowish tinge. Because of this blue whales are sometimes called "sulphurbottoms". The dorsal fin is short, only about 35 cm. The upper jaw is the widest in the genus, and the rostrum is the bluntest. There are 50-90 throat grooves that extend from the chin to just beyond the navel.

Blue whales are the largest animals ever to exist on earth. Average head-body length in adult males is 25 m; in females it is 27 m. The longest confirmed specimen was 33.5 m in length and the heaviest was 190,000 kg. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    190000 (high) kg
    418502.20 (high) lb
  • Average mass
    190000 kg
    418502.20 lb
  • Range length
    33.5 (high) m
    109.91 (high) ft
  • Average length
    25-27 m
    ft

Reproduction

Very little is known about mating in the large whale species.

The gestation period is eleven or twelve months long, unusually short for an animal its size. Young are born in warm, low latitude waters in the winter months after the adults return from their high latitude feeding grounds. At birth the young are 7-8 m long. While nursing, blue whales can gain up to 90 kg in body weight a day. Young are weaned after seven or eight months, usually after attaining a length of 16 m. Sexual maturity occurs at about 5 years old in females, or at about 21 to 23 m in length and young are produced every 2 or 3 years after that. Twins are rare but do occur occassionally. Males mature at 20 to 21 m, just under 5 years old. Longevity has been estimated to be as high as 110 years. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Breeding interval
    Females give birth to young every 2 to 3 years.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs during the winter months.
  • Average number of offspring
    1
  • Average number of offspring
    1
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    11 to 12 months
  • Range weaning age
    7 to 8 months
  • Range time to independence
    2 to 3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    5 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    1827 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    5 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    1827 days
    AnAge

Blue whale young are cared for extensively by their mother. Male blue whales do not contribute parental care. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Longevity in blue whales, and other large cetaceans, is estimated by counting the number of ovarian scars in sexually mature females, changes in the coloration of eye lenses, and counting the number of ridges on baleen plates. Age estimates of blue whales suggest a lifespan of 80 to 90 years. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    80-90 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    80 to 90 years

Behavior

Most populations of blue whales are migratory, though some animals do not migrate. Migrators typically spend the winter in low latitude waters, move towards the poles during the spring, feed in high latitude waters during the summer and head back toward the equator during the fall. There are northern and southern ocean populations that remain distinct. Normal swimming speed is around 22 km/hr, but blue whales can make 48 km/hr if alarmed. Feeding is usually at depths less than 100 m; harpooned animals have dived as deep as 500 m. Normal dives last from 10-20 minutes and are separated by 8-15 blows. The spout of blue whales can reach almost 10 m. Aggregations of up to 60 animals have been reported, but solitary animals or pods of two or three are more common. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Blue whales have the lowest voices of any whale, vocalizing as low as 14 Hz at volumes up to 200 decibels. Sounds at this frequency and intensity can travel for thousands of miles in the deep ocean. These sounds may be used to communicate with other whales. Low frequency pulses may be used to navigate by creating a sonic image of distant oceanic features.

Little is known about intraspecific communication in these whales. Vision and smell are limited, but hearing is sensitive. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Food Habits

The diet of blue whales is principally krill. In southern waters the main species eaten is Euphausia superba, a small (less than 7 cm) planktonic crustacean that is tremendously abundant. In northern waters the main species are Thysanoessa inermis and Meganyctiphanes norvegica, though other planktonic species and small fish are also eaten. Adult whales can ingest 3 to 4 tons of krill per day.

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats non-insect arthropods

Predation

Blue whales, by virtue of their extreme size, have virtually no natural predators. They were hunted by humans extensively in the 20th century, almost to extinction. Blue whale calves may be vulnerable to predation by orcas and large sharks.

Ecosystem Roles

Blue whales, and other large baleen whales, are important predators of krill.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Blue whales were formerly heavily hunted for blubber and oil. Because of the immensity of blue whales, only sperm whales approached them in economic importance. A single blue whale could yield 70 or 80 barrels of oil. Baleen was also an important whale product, valued for its plastic like properties that were applied in a wide variety of products.

Blue whales, and other large whales, have important ecotourism value.

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no negative impacts of blue whales on humans.

Conservation Status

Blue whales were not initially among the most heavily hunted species due to their size, speed, and remote habitat. Technological advances from 1860-1920, however, allowed whalers to pursue the species. The estimated total kill of blue whales in the 20th century was 350,000 animals. By the 1960's, blue whales were on the edge of extinction. Despite the opposition of the whaling industry, blue whales gained protection after the 1965/66 whaling season. Estimates of the remaining population range from 2,000 to 6,000 individuals and it is not yet clear that the blue whale will escape extinction. Southern hemisphere populations have been surveyed extensively and are estimated at 400 to 1,400 animals. Northern hemisphere populations are estimated at about 5,000 individuals but the scientific rigor of these surveys has been criticized.

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.

David L. Fox (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Arctic Ocean

the body of water between Europe, Asia, and North America which occurs mostly north of the Arctic circle.

Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

filter-feeding

a method of feeding where small food particles are filtered from the surrounding water by various mechanisms. Used mainly by aquatic invertebrates, especially plankton, but also by baleen whales.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

pelagic

An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).

polar

the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

zooplankton

animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)

References

Nowak, R. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tinker, S. 1988. Whales of the World. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.