How Giants Eat

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Normally found on the inside of a whale’s mouth, this strip of baleen has been rolled up and dried for storage purposes.

How Giants Eat

This is a strip of baleen. Rolled up for purposes of storage, normally it would be fused to the jaw of a whale. In fact, it’s used by the largest whales to eat some of the smallest invertebrates on earth.  The baleen itself is composed of plates of bristle that allow whales to filter through large amounts of seawater for zooplankton, small fishes and crustaceans.  These plates are often likened to the teeth of a comb (and are thought to have evolved from teeth). The whale pushes seawater out through these bristles, thereby straining the water for its meal.

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Baleen is composed of keratin, the same substance which makes up our nails and hair.

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A gray whale showing its baleen at the surface. Photograph by Christopher Swann from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/visions-now-next, 2014.

There are a number of baleen whales, including but not limited to the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) and minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata and bonaerensis).  All species of baleen whale can be found in four families: the right whale (Balaenidae), the pygmy right whale (Cetotheriidae), the gray whale (Eschrichtiidae) and the rorqual whale (Balaenopteridae).  Oftentimes, their prey of choice is the innocuous krill, a small zooplankton that grows in vast numbers on the surface of the sea (mats of which can sometimes be seen from space).

For a comparison of baleen and toothed whales, click here.  For a short video about krill, click here.

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Baleen, or whalebone as it’s historically known, was long used in the manufacture of a variety of goods, including corsets and collar stays.

This specimen was purchased by the Bishop Museum from the son of a missionary who’d collected many zoological specimens between 1892 and 1896 while in the South Pacific.  It was included along with a smorgasbord of other specimens that now reside in our Botany, Malacology, Invertebrate Zoology, Ichthyology and Geology collections.

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While the outer plate is smooth the inner plate forms a thick mat of bristles that prevents prey from leaving the mouth once inside.

Since the 1972 enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), these marine mammals have been protected in the U.S.  But it wasn’t until 1982 that the International Whaling Commission decided to put a whaling moratorium in place.  And it wasn’t until 1985 that this moratorium (or “pause” as it’s often called) was actually put into effect.  Whale populations worldwide remain highly susceptible to the stresses of human civilization.  It is our continued scientific interest in whales that provides the necessary studies to advocate for them worldwide.

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