|The term whale can refer to all cetaceans, to just the larger ones, or only to members of particular families within the order Cetacea. The last definition is the one followed here. Whales are those cetaceans which are neither dolphins (i.e. members of the families Delphinidae or Platanistoidea) nor porpoises. This can lead to some confusion because Orcas ("Killer Whales") and Pilot whales have "whale" in their name, but they are dolphins for the purpose of classification.
Origins and taxonomy
Cetaceans are divided into two suborders:
The body is fusiform, resembling the streamlined form of a fish. The forelimbs, also called flippers, are paddle-shaped. The end of the tail holds the fluke, or tail fins, which provide propulsion by vertical movement. Although whales generally do not possess hind limbs, some whales (such as sperm whales and baleen whales) sometimes have rudimentary hind limbs; some even with feet and digits. Most species of whale bear a fin on their backs known as a dorsal fin.
Beneath the skin lies a layer of fat, the blubber. It serves as an energy reservoir and also as insulation. Whales have a four-chambered heart. The neck vertebrae are fused in most whales, which provides stability during swimming at the expense of flexibility. They have a pelvis bone, which is a vestigial structure.
Whales breathe through blowholes, located on the top of the head so the animal can remain submerged. Baleen whales have two; toothed whales have one. The shapes of whales' spouts when exhaling after a dive, when seen from the right angle, differ between species. Whales have a unique respiratory system that lets them stay underwater for long periods of time without taking in oxygen. Some whales, such as the Sperm Whale, can stay underwater for up to two hours holding a single breath. The Blue Whale is the largest known mammal that has ever lived, and the largest living animal, at up to 35 m (105ft) long and 150 tons.
Whales generally live for 40-200 years, depending on their species, but it is rare to find one that lives over a century. Recently a fragment of a lance used by commercial whalers in the 19th century has been found in a bowhead whale caught off Alaska. The fragment showed the whale is between 115 and 130 years old. "No other finding has been this precise," said John Bockstoce, an adjunct curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Whale flukes often can be used as identifying markings, as is the case for humpback whales. This is the method by which the publicized errant Humphrey the whale was identified in three separate sightings.
Anatomy of the ear
Because of their environment (and unlike many animals), whales are conscious breathers: they decide when to breathe. All mammals sleep, including whales, but they cannot afford to fall into an unconscious state for too long, since they need to be conscious in order to breathe. It is thought that only one hemisphere of their brains sleeps at a time, so that whales are never completely asleep, but still get the rest they need. Whales are thought to sleep around 8 hours a day.
Whales also communicate with each other using lyrical sounds. Being so large and powerful, these sounds are also extremely loud (depending on the species); sperm whales have only been heard making clicks, as all toothed whales (Odontoceti) use echolocation and can be heard for many miles. They have been known to generate about 20,000 acoustic watts of sound at 163 decibels.
Females give birth to a single calf. Nursing time is long (more than one year in many species), which is associated with a strong bond between mother and young. In most whales reproductive maturity occurs late, typically at seven to ten years. This mode of reproduction spawns few offspring, but provides each with a high probability of survival in the wild.
The male genitals are retracted into cavities of the body during swimming, so as to be streamlined and reduce drag. Most whales do not maintain fixed partnerships during mating; in many species the females have several mates each season. At birth the newborn is delivered tail-first, so the risk of drowning is minimized. Whale mothers nurse the young by actively squirting milk into their mouths a milk that according to German naturalist Dieffenbach, bears great similarities to cow's milk, except with a much higher concentration of fat. Biologists compare the consistency of whale milk to cottage cheese; it must be thick, or else it will dissipate into the surrounding water.
The International Whaling Commission introduced a six year moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986, which has been extended to the present day. For various reasons some exceptions to this moratorium exist; current whaling nations are Norway, Iceland and Japan and the aboriginal communities of Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada. For details, see whaling.
Several species of small whales are caught as bycatch in fisheries for other species. In the tuna fishery in the Eastern Tropical Pacific thousands of dolphins were drowned in purse-seine nets, until measures to prevent this were introduced. Fishing gear and deployment modifications, and eco-labelling (dolphin-safe or dolphin-friendly brands of canned tuna), have contributed to a reduction in the mortality of dolphins by tuna fishing vessels in recent years. In many countries, small whales are still hunted for food, oil, meat or bait.
Despite the concerns raised about sonar which may invalidate this assumption, this population estimate technique is still popular today. Researchers in the area (Talpalar & Grossman, 2005) support the view that it is the combination of the high pressure environment of deep-diving with the disturbing effect of the sonar which causes decompression sickness and stranding of whales. Thus, an exaggerated startle response occurring during deep diving may alter orientation cues and produce rapid ascent.
Following public concern, the U.S. Defense department has been ordered by the U.S. judiciary to strictly limit use of its Low Frequency Active Sonar during peacetime. Attempts by the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to obtain a public inquiry into the possible dangers of the Royal Navy's equivalent (the "2087" sonar launched in December 2004) have so far failed. The European Parliament on the other hand has requested that EU members refrain from using the powerful sonar system until an environmental impact study has been carried out.
Other environmental disturbances
Some scientists and environmentalists suggest that some whale species are also endangered due to a number of other human activities such as the unregulated use of fishing gear, that often catch anything that swims into them, collisions with ships, toxins and the combination of toxins POPs among other threats.
Whales are also threatened by climate change and global warming. As the Antarctic Ocean warms, krill populations, that are the main food source of some species of whales, reduce dramatically, being replaced by jelly like salps.
List of whale species
The suborder contains four families and fourteen fully known species. Balaenoptera omurai is a recent discovery and little is known of it, no common name has been assigned to it yet.
The scientific name derives from the Greek word mystax, which means "moustache".
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