Baleen whale

Baleen whale
Baleen whales[1]
Temporal range: latest Eocene – Recent
Humpback Whale breaching
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Suborder: Mysticeti
Cope, 1891

see text


The Baleen whales, also called whalebone whales or great whales, form the Mysticeti, one of two suborders of the Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). Baleen whales are characterized by having baleen plates for filtering food from water, rather than having teeth. This distinguishes them from the other suborder of cetaceans, the toothed whales or Odontoceti. Living Mysticeti species have teeth only during the embryonal phase. Fossil Mysticeti had teeth before baleen evolved.

The suborder contains four extant families and fifteen species.



The taxonomic name Mysticeti apparently derives from a transmission error in early copies of Aristotle's Historia Animalium in which "ο μυς το κητος" ("the whale known as 'the mouse' or 'Gutter whale' ") was mistakenly run together as "ο μυστικητος" ("the Mysticetus").[2] An alternate name for the suborder is Mystacoceti (from Greek μυσταξ "moustache" + κητος "whale").[3]


Baleen whales are generally larger than toothed whales, and females are bigger than males. This group includes the largest known animal species, the Blue Whale.

Humpback whale with two blowholes clearly visible

Baleen whales have two blowholes, causing a V-shaped blow.

Ecology and life history

Behavioral ecology

Solitary or in small groups called pods.


In spite of their enormous size, baleen whales are able to leap completely out of the water. They can grow to 190,000 kilograms (420,000 lb) in weight and 33.5 metres (110 ft) in length.[4] Particularly known for its acrobatics is the Humpback Whale, but other baleen whales also break through the water surface with their body or beat it loudly with their fins. Some believe that the male baleen whales try to show off in the presence of females to increase their mating success. Scientists speculate that baleen whales and other cetaceans may engage in breaching to dislodge parasites, or scratch irritated skin. Breaching, and other behaviors like lobtailing, are also used to stun or kill nearby fish or krill.

Importance to humans

From the 11th to the late 20th centuries, baleen whales were hunted commercially for their oil and baleen. Their oil was used to make margarine and cooking oils, whilst their baleen was used to stiffen corsets, as parasol ribs and to crease paper.

Evolutionary history

Parietobalaena palmeri (extinct) skull

Early baleen whales first appeared as far back as the early Oligocene, or perhaps the latest Eocene (39–29 million years ago; e.g., Llanocetus). Early baleen whales possessed teeth inherited from their ancestors, as opposed to baleen, in modern species. The Oligocene species Aetiocetus cotylalveus is considered the evolutionary link between toothed and baleen whales. This species was discovered by fossil collector Douglas Emlong in 1964 near Seal Rock State Recreation Site, Oregon, in a sandstone formation.[5] In the early 1990s, the species Janjucetus hunderi was discovered in Victoria, Australia by a surfer and was described in 2006 by E. M. G. Fitzgerald.[6] Janjucetus was a baleen whale with sharp teeth that hunted fish and squid as well as larger prey, potentially including sharks and dolphin-like cetaceans. These fossils hint that early baleen whales were predatory and eventually evolved into the gentler, toothless whales known today. A recent study identified palatal foramina (bony impressions of blood vessels that "feed" the baleen racks) in the palate of a toothed mysticete, Aetiocetus weltoni. The scientists involved indicated that this discovery implies that this whale previously possessed both teeth and baleen, and serves as an intermediate adaptive role between primitive toothed mysticetes and more advanced toothless mysticetes.[7] The first baleen-bearing, toothless baleen whales (such as Eomysticetus and Micromysticetus) appeared in the late Oligocene.[8] Early baleen whales probably could not echolocate; no anatomical evidence preserved in the skulls and ear regions of any fossil baleen whales show any of the adaptations associated with echolocation as in toothed whales.[6]

Taxonomic classification

The ""'s denote extinct families and genera.

Suborder Mysticeti: Baleen whales

  • Family †Aetiocetidae
  • Family †Aglaocetidae
    • Aglaocetus
    • Isanacetus
    • Pinocetus
  • Family Balaenidae: Right whales and Bowhead Whale
    • Balaena Bowhead whales
    • Balaenella
    • Balaenotus
    • Balaenula
    • Eubalaena
    • Eucetites
    • Morenocetus
  • Family Balaenopteridae: Rorquals[9]
    • Archaebalaenoptera
    • Balaenoptera
    • Cetotheriophanes
    • Diunatans
    • Mauicetus
    • Megaptera
    • Notiocetus
    • Parabalaenoptera
    • Plesiobalaenoptera
    • Praemegaptera
    • Protororqualus
  • †Family Cetotheriidae
    • Cephalotropis
    • Cetotherium
    • Herpetocetus
    • Hibacetus
    • Joumocetus
    • Metopocetus
    • Mixocetus
    • Nannocetus
    • Palaeobalaena
    • Piscobalaena
    • Plesiocetopsis
    • Titanocetus
  • †Family Cetotheriopsidae
    • Cetotheriopsis
    • Micromysticetus
  • †Family Diorocetidae
    • Amphicetus
    • Diorocetus
    • Plesiocetus
    • Thinocetus
    • Uranocetus
  • †Family Eomysticetidae
    • Eomysticetus
  • Family Eschrichtiidae
    • Archaeschrichtius
    • Eschrichtioides
    • Eschrichtius Gray whales
    • Gricetoides
    • Megapteropsis
  • †Family Llanocetidae
    • Llanocetus
  • †Family Mammalodontidae
  • Family Neobalaenidae: Pygmy Right Whale
  • †Family Pelocetidae
    • Cophocetus
    • Halicetus
    • Parietobalaena
    • Pelocetus
    • Eobalaenoptera
  • Family incertae sedis
    • Amphitera
    • Burtinopsis
    • Idiocetus
    • Imerocetus
    • Isocetus
    • Mesocetus
    • Mioceta
    • Otradnocetus
    • Peripolocetus
    • Piscocetus
    • Siphonocetus
    • Tiphyocetus
    • Tretulias
    • Ulias

The earliest-known baleen whale is Llanocetus, discovered on Seymour Island, Antarctica, by E.D. Mitchell in 1989. The species lived during the Latest Eocene/Earliest Miocene, about 35 mya.


  1. ^ Mead, James G.; Brownell, Robert L., Jr. (16 November 2005). "Order Cetacea (pp. 723-743)". In Wilson, Don E., and Reeder, DeeAnn M., eds. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols. (2142 pp.). ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
  2. ^ OED 'mysticete' (n, 1)
  3. ^ OED 'mystacocete'
  4. ^ Dewey, T.; Fox, D. (2002). "Balaenoptera musculus (On-line)". Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved 2009-06-13. 
  5. ^ Wallace, D. R. (2007). Neptune's Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas. Berkeley ; London: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24322-6. 
  6. ^ a b Fitzgerald, E. M. G. (2006). "A bizarre new toothed mysticete (Cetacea) from Australia and the early evolution of baleen whales". Proceedings of the Royal Society - 'B': Biological Sciences, 273 (1604): 2955–2963. doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3664. PMC 1639514. PMID 17015308. 
  7. ^ Deméré, T., McGowen, M., Berta, A., Gatesy, J. (2008). Morphological and Molecular Evidence for a Stepwise Evolutionary Transition from Teeth to Baleen in Mysticete Whales. Systematic Biology, 57(1), 15-37.
  8. ^ A. E. Sanders and L. G. Barnes. 2002. Paleontology of the Late Oligocene Ashley and Chandler Bridge Formations of South Carolina, 3: Eomysticetidae, a new family of primitive mysticetes (Mammalia: Cetacea). Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 93:313-356.
  9. ^ Deméré, T.A.; Berta, A.; McGowen, M.R. (2005). "The taxonomic and evolutionary history of fossil and modern balaenopteroid mysticetes". Journal of Mammalian Evolution 12 (1/2): 99–143. doi:10.1007/s10914-005-6944-3. 
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Look at other dictionaries:

  • baleen whale — n. any of an order (Mysticeta) of whales with toothless jaws, baleen in the mouth, and a symmetrical skull, consisting of the gray whale, the right whales, and rorquals * * * Any of about 13 species of cetaceans in the suborder Mysticeti. They… …   Universalium

  • baleen whale — n. any of an order (Mysticeta) of whales with toothless jaws, baleen in the mouth, and a symmetrical skull, consisting of the gray whale, the right whales, and rorquals …   English World dictionary

  • baleen whale — baleen′ whale′ n. mam whalebone whale • Etymology: 1870–75 …   From formal English to slang

  • baleen whale — ► NOUN ▪ any of the kinds of whale that have plates of whalebone in the mouth for straining plankton from the water …   English terms dictionary

  • baleen whale — /bəˌlin ˈweɪl/ (say buh.leen wayl) noun one of the group of whales of the suborder Mysticeti, which have baleen, such as the blue whale, sei whale, right whale, etc. Compare toothed whale. Also, whalebone whale …  

  • baleen whale — noun whale with plates of whalebone along the upper jaw for filtering plankton from the water • Syn: ↑whalebone whale • Hypernyms: ↑whale • Hyponyms: ↑right whale, ↑bowhead, ↑bowhead whale, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • baleen whale — noun Any of several large whales, of the suborder Mysticeti, that have plates of whalebone instead of teeth Syn: whalebone whale, great whale …   Wiktionary

  • baleen whale — noun Date: 1874 any of a suborder (Mysticeti) of usually large whales lacking teeth but having baleen which is used to filter chiefly small crustaceans (as krill) out of large quantities of seawater …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • baleen whale. — See whalebone whale. [1870 75] * * * …   Universalium

  • baleen whale. — See whalebone whale. [1870 75] …   Useful english dictionary

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