What kinds of toothed whales are there?
There are several families of Odontoceti, or toothed whales:
- sperm whales
- pygmy sperm whales
- beaked whales
- river-dolphins (3 families)
- belugas and narwhals
What is unique about toothed whales?
Nearly 90% of cetacean species are toothed whales. Most toothed whales are small dolphins and porpoise, however there are a few large toothed whales such as the killer whale and the mighty sperm whale, which grows to 60 feet (18.3 meters) in length. Toothed whales are believed to be some of the most intelligent animals on earth. Dolphins as well as beluga and killer whales have demonstrated their intelligence while in captivity, and sperm whales possess the largest brain of any creature alive. The presence of teeth and one external blowhole distinguishes toothed whales from baleen whales. Also, most toothed whales use echolocation to locate food and "see" their environment.
Why were toothed whales hunted?
Throughout history, humans hunted toothed whales for oil and food. Sperm whales were prized by commercial whalers for the large amount of oil that could be produced from their blubber and spermaceti organ and for ambergris (a waxy substance that forms around squid beaks in the whales' intestines), which was used to make perfume. Sperm whales are still classified as endangered because of the great numbers that were killed by commercial whaling through the 17th to early 20th centuries.
What are sperm whales and pygmy sperm whales like?
The sperm whale is the most famous of the Physeteridae family. It is also the largest of the toothed whales and may dive deeper than any other cetacean. Herman Melville made the sperm whale famous in his classic novel Moby Dick. A similar toothed whale family is the Kogiidae family which includes the pygmy sperm whale and dwarf sperm whale which are significantly smaller than the sperm whale but share characteristics such as the spermaceti organ, the blunt head, and the distinctive narrow lower jaw.
Click on the sperm whale species link to view information about them!
- Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
What are beaked whales like?
Beaked whales are members of the Ziphiidae family. The name Ziphiidae was derived from the Greek word "xiphos" meaning sword so beaked whales are the "sword-nosed whales." Beaked whales are the least well-known of all cetaceans. Some species have never been seen alive and have been studied only when dead animals wash ashore. Beaked whales may be rare or simply elusive but, generally, they live in deep water far from land and are rarely seen. It is believed that there are 20 living species of beaked whales.
Click on the North Pacific bottlenose whale species link to view information about them!
- North Pacific bottlenose whale (Berardius bairdii)
What are river-dolphins like?
River-dolphins are considered to be “primitive” dolphins retaining the slender beaks with numerous teeth, flexible necks, pronounced forehead melons, and the undeveloped dorsal fins of early dolphins. River-dolphins live in muddy river estuaries and rely on their excellent echolocation skills in order to “see” the world they live in. The family taxonomy has not been agreed upon by the scientific community. Species considered to be river-dolphins are the Indian river-dolphin (Indus and Ganges river-dolphins), Amazon river-dolphin (boto), Yangtse river-dolphin (baiji), and the La Plata dolphin.
Click on the La Plata dolphin species link to view information about them!
- La Plata dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei)
What are beluga whales and narwhals like?
There are only two species in the Monodontidae family, the narwhal and the beluga (white whales). Both species lack dorsal fins, have blunt-shaped heads, are gray colored at birth, and whiten as they mature. Adult beluga whales are a brilliant white while narwhals have white bellies and mottled grayish-green backs and flanks (although old animals may be completely white). Belugas have 8-10 teeth in each jaw, while the narwhal is toothless except for two embedded teeth in the upper jaw: one of these teeth develops into a spiral tusk in males and some females.
Click on the one of the species links to view information about them!
What are dolphins like?
Members of the dolphin, or Delphinidae family, usually have teeth in both jaws (the number and shape of the teeth vary by species), a melon-shaped head with a distinct beak, and a dorsal fin. A few of the 36 species in this family are the bottlenose dolphin, Risso's dolphin, false killer whale, Pacific whitesided dolphin, killer whale (orca), longfinned pilot whale, shortfinned pilot whale, and Irrawaddy dolphin.
Click on the one of the dolphin species links to view information about them!
- Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
- Pacific whitesided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens)
- Killer whale (Orcinus orca)
What are porpoises like?
Members of the porpoise, or the Phocoenidae family, have blunt heads and small spade-shaped teeth. Porpoises grow up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) in length and lack the “beak” and melon-shaped foreheads of most dolphin species. Porpoise species include the harbor porpoise, Gulf of California porpoise, Burmeister’s porpoise, spectacled porpoise, finless porpoise, and Dall’s porpoise.
Click on the Dall's porpoise species link to view information about them!
- Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli)
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