Physeter catodonsperm whale

Geographic Range

Sperm whales roam the deep waters of all the oceans, though they seldom approach polar ice fields and are most common in temperate and tropical latitudes. They have also be seen occasionally near coastlines in the Gulf of Mexico, where they were once quite common.


Sperm whales swim through deep waters to depths of 2 miles, apparently limited in depth only by the time it takes to swim down and back to the surface. Their distributions are depend upon season and sexual/social status, however they are most likely to be found in waters inhabited by squid- at least 1,000 m deep and with cold-water upswellings. Because they are so well-adapted for deep water swimming, they are in real danger of stranding when they move inshore.

Physical Description

Above weights are given for mature male giant sperm whales. Females only weigh about 1/3 as much as males. Males may reach 19 m while females are only 12 meters. Newborn calves measure about 4 m and are about 1/25 the weight of females.

The enormous (up to 1/3 of total body length), box-like head of Physeter catodon sets it apart from all other species. The head contains a spermaceti organ whose function is not entirely known. It may serve to focus and reflect sound or may be a cooling organ to diminish the whale's volume and its buoyancy during prolonged dives. The giant sperm whale has the largest of mammalian brains in terms of sheer mass (approximately 9 kg). The blowhole slit is S-shaped and positioned on the left side of the head. There are 18-28 functional teeth on each side of the lower jaws, but the upper teeth are few, weak and nonfunctional. The lower teeth fit into sockets in the upper jaw. The gullet of Physeter catodon is the largest among cetaceans; it is in fact the only gullet large enough to swallow a human.

The dorsal fin is replaced by a hump and by a series of longitudinal ridges on the posterior part of the back, and the pectoral fins are quite small, approximately 200 cm. long. Tail flukes are 400-450 cm. The blubber layer of the giant sperm whale is quite thick, up to 35 cm. With respect to coloration, males often become paler and sometimes piebald with age. Both sexes have white in the genital and anal regions and on the lower jaws.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    35000 to 50000 kg
    77092.51 to 110132.16 lb


These whales have a polygamous mating system. During the breeding season, breeding schools composed of 1-5 large males and a mixed group of females and males of various ages form. At this point, there is intense competition among the males for females (including physical competition resulting in battle scars all over the heads of males). Only about 10-25% of fully adult males in a population are able to breed.

Females mature sexually at 8-11 years, and males mature at approximately 10 years, although males do not mate until 25-27 years old because they do not have a high enough social status in a breeding school until that point. Maximum known life span is 77 years. Gestation period is 14-16 months and a single calf is born, which nurses for up to 2 years. The reproductive cycle occurs in females every 2-5 years. The peak of the mating season is in the spring in both Northern and Southern hemispheres so that most calves are born in the fall.

  • Breeding interval
    The reproductive cycle occurs in females every 2-5 years
  • Breeding season
    The peak of the mating season is in the spring in both Northern and Southern hemispheres
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    14 to 16 months
  • Range weaning age
    24 (high) months
  • Average weaning age
    24 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    8 to 11 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    3650 days



Giant sperm whales are very deep divers and may stay submerged from 20 minutes to over an hour. When they surface, sperm whales typically blow 20-70 times before redescending. They produce a visible spout made by the condensation of the moisture combined with a mucous foam from the sinuses. Giant sperm whales typically swim at speeds no faster than 10 km per hour, but when disturbed they can attain speeds of 30 km per hour.

Giant sperm whales are highly gregarious and group themselves roughly by age and sex in group sizes of 100 or more individuals. Loose family groups of about 30 individuals, however, are more common. Groups are often made up of either bachelor bulls (sexually inactive males) or "nursery schools" of mature females and juveniles of both sexes. Older males are usually solitary except during the breeding season.

Sperm whales use clicking noises for echolocation, but they also make a variety of other sounds including "groans, whistles, chirps, pings, squeaks, yelps, and wheezes" (Ellis 1980). Their voices are quite loud and can be heard many kilometers away with underwater listening devices. Each whale also emits a stereotyped, repetitive sequence of 3-40 or more clicks when it meets another whale. This sequence is known as the whale's "coda."

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Physeter catodon feeds mainly on squid (especially giant squid), octopus and deepwater fishes, but it also take sharks and skates. It consumes approximately 3 per cent of its body weight in squid per day.

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The head of the sperm whale contains 3-4 tons of spermaceti, a substance valued as a lubricant for fine machinery and a component of automatic transmission fluid. It is also used in making ointments and fine, smokeless candles (once it solidifies into a white wax upon exposure to air). Physeter catodon has also been a target of commercial whaling in years gone by, notably in areas around the Gulf of Mexico. The meat of the whale is not generally consumed. Instead, spermaceti is extracted from the head, and the teeth are often used as a medium for the artistic form of engraving and carving known as scrimshaw. The most important product obtained from giant sperm whales is the oil once used as fuel for lamps and now used as a lubricant and as the base for skin creams and cosmetics. A gummy substance called ambergris forms in the large intestines of sperm whales and can be found floating on the surface of the water or washed ashore once it is expelled. It was once believed to have medicinal qualities, but it is now used in connection with manufacture of perfumes, based on the fact that when it is exposed to air, it hardens and acquires a sweet, earthy smell. The island Ambergris Cay, just south of the Gulf of Mexico, was given its name because of the great quantities of this substance gathered along its shores.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Being fiercly aggressive, bull giant sperm whales posed a threat to small-boat whalers in the 19th century. Sperm whales are no match for modern whaling equipment, however. They have also been known to become entangled in trans-Atlantic telephone in dives 3/4 mile deep, but this type of incident is rare.

Conservation Status

Sperm whales were once quite abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, but due to commercial whaling operations, they are seldom seen in this area anymore. Worldwide however, sperm whales populations are more stable than that of many other whales, although they continue to be listed as endangered by USDI (1980). The sperm whale is now the most abundant of the great whales, having been hunted with less intensity that the baleen whales. Worldwide, sperm whales number about 1,500,000.

Other Comments

The name Physeter is a Greek word meaning "blower," and refers to the whale's behavior of making a vapor spout when it exhales air from its lungs at the surface. Catodon comes from two Greek words, kata meaning "lower" and odon meaning "tooth." The species epithet thus refers to the long row of teeth in the lower jaw. The adjectival noun Sperm in the vernacular name refers to the spermaceti or sperm oil obtained from the animal's head, although some have suggested that it may refer to the large size of the male's retractable penis (approximately 2m).


Liz Ballenger (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


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


Referring to an animal that lives on or near the bottom of a body of water. Also an aquatic biome consisting of the ocean bottom below the pelagic and coastal zones. Bottom habitats in the very deepest oceans (below 9000 m) are sometimes referred to as the abyssal zone. see also oceanic vent.

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.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


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.


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).


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

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


having more than one female as a mate at one time

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


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


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


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


Ellis, R. 1980. The Book of Whales. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Harrison, R. and M.M. Brayden. 1988. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Intercontinental Publishing Corporation, New York.

Lowery, G.H. Jr. 1974. The Mammals of Louisiana and Its Adjacent Waters. Kingsport Press, Inc., Knoxville, TN.

Nowak, R.M. and J.L Paradiso. 1983. Walker's Mammals of the World. 4th edition. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.