Teeth & Tongue: Whale Feeding Fun

Humpback whale tail in the ocean.

Orcas vs humpbacks vs gray whales vs rights — do you know that each type of whale uses its own unique strategy to hunt and capture the food it eats? Science writer and Tofino resident David Pitt-Brooke explains how different whales chow down in his excellent book Chasing Clayoquot: A Wilderness Almanac, excerpted below (emphasis added):

All whales are predators but they fall into two distinct categories with very different foraging strategies. Toothed whales — orcas, sperm whales, dolphins [and pilot whales] — feed on relatively large prey that they actively pursue, seize with simple pointed teeth and gulp more or less whole.

Baleen whales — gray whales, bowhead whales, blue whales [and humpbacks] — feed on relatively tiny prey, small fish and crustaceans… [These whales have] manged to evolve a sort of colander in their mouths… Their gums develop a growth of baleen plates, long sheets of keratin — the protein of fingernails — hanging vertically in their cavernous mouths and overlapping like the slats of a Venetian blind. The inner edge of each plate is frayed into fibres or bristles. The mat of bristles inside the overlapping plates serves as an effective net or strainer. The size of the mesh thus formed varies between different species of whale, depending on their habitual food: coarser for larger prey, finer for smaller prey. When baleen whales have a mouthful, they use their tongues to press the seawater out of their food. The water escapes through the baleen while the food remains trapped inside.

Baleen whales can be further sorted into three categories according to differences in their approach to the same basic feeding strategy. Rorquals — blues, fins, humpbacks [as well as minke and sei whales] — are gulpers. They have large mouths and deep pelican-like throat pouches. When rorquals encounter a school of prey, they open wide and engulf the whole mass. Right whales and bowhead whales are continuous strainers. They swim through the ocean, mouths wide, living plankton nets, straining food through long baleen plates as they go. Gray whales, in a class by themselves, are bottom-feeders. A gray whale lays the side of its head on the bottom and sucks up a giant-sized mouthful of sand and mud containing ghost shrimp, amphipods and other prey. The whale chews to loosen the mass, then uses its tongue to squeeze the soupy mud back into the ocean through the baleen, leaving only the prey behind to be swallowed.

Teeth, tongue, baleen, or a face in the mud. The next time to see a whale in the waters off Vancouver Island, consider how this enormous marine mammal fuels its bulky body. Bon appétit!

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