The Sperm whale (scientific name: Physeter macrocephalus) is a marine mammal in the order of cetaceans. It is the largest of the toothed whales (having teeth rather than baleen), with males growing up to 20 metres in length. It also has the largest brain of any living animal, and it was a sperm whale that was pitted against Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby Dick.
|Sperm whale. Source: National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Fisheries Science Center|
|Size comparison of an average human against the sperm whale. Source: Chris Huh|
Sperm whales have huge square heads, comprising almost a third of the total body length ; indeed the specific name macrocephalus means large head.
Uniquely among cetaceans, the single blowhole is located on the left of the head rather than on the top and so these whales are easily identified at a distance by their low, bushy spout, which is projected forward and slightly to the left. Further down the body toward the tail there is usually a large hump on the back, followed by a series of smaller bumps.
The dark brown to bluish-black skin, which is splotched and scratched, is said to have a texture like that of a plum stone. The inside of the mouth and the lips are white. Males tend to be larger and heavier than females, and have larger heads in relation to their body size.
The huge heads of sperm whales contain a large cavity, the spermaceti organ, filled with a waxy liquid called spermaceti oil. This wax can be cooled or heated, possibly by water sucked in through the blowhole, and thus shrinks and increases in density (helping the whale sink), or expands and decreases in density (helping the whale rise to the surface). Whalers likened the substance to semen, and this is the origin of the common name of the species.
Sperm whales are usually found in medium to large groups of up to 50 individuals, although bulls are sometimes seen alone.The tail flukes will often appear before a deep dive. Dives may last up to two hours long (Kinze, 2002).
Sperm whales live in either nursery or bachelor groups. Nursery groups consist of a number of adult females and immature males and females. Males leave these groups when they become mature and join bachelor groups, which consist of males of seven to 27 years of age. Older males live in small groups or singly, and visit nursery groups to mate with females during the breeding season. Most groups of sperm whales tend to number between 10 and 15 individuals.
Sperm whales use echolocation to find their prey in the dark ocean depths. When foraging, powerful sound waves are emitted from the large head; these can stun and even kill the squid, octopuses and fish on which they feed.
Males reach maturity at 10 years of age, but they do not begin to mate until they are around 19 years old and a length of 13 metres. Females become mature at between seven and eleven years, when they are around nine metres in length. A single calf is born between July and November after a gestation period of around 16 months. The calf is suckled for up to two years. Groups of females protect their young by adopting a defensive 'marguerite formation' in which the calves are placed in the centre of the group surrounded by a circle of females, facing tail outwards.
Sperm whales can dive deeper than 1.6 kilometres and stay under for 90 minutes, although shorter, shallower dives are more usual. They eat squid and octopus, which are sucked into the mouth whole.So large, so slow to reproduce, and once heavily hunted for their spermaceti, blubber, and ambergris, which forms in the intestines and was used in the perfume industry, sperm whales are now vulnerable. Since 1986, there has been a moratorium on hunting them.
Key physical features are: endothermic; homoiothermic; and bilateral symmetry. The species length ranges from 11.0-18.3 metres (m) for males and 8.3-12.5 m with females. Body mass ranges are from 11,000-57,000 kilograms (kg) for males and 6,800-24,000 kg for females. These values are applicable to mature Sperm whales. Newborn calves measure about four m in lentgh, with a body mass of 700 to 900 kg.
The enormous (up to one third of total body length), box-like head of the Sperm whale sets it apart from all other species. This whale has the largest brain among mammals weighting about 9.2 kilograms (Ronald Nowak 1999). The blowhole slit is S-shaped and positioned forward on the left side of the head. There are 18-28 functional teeth on each side of the lower jaws, but the upper teeth are few, weak and non-functional. The lower teeth fit into sockets in the upper jaw.
The gullet of is the largest among cetaceans; it is in fact the only gullet large enough to accomodate a human.The dorsal fin is replaced by a hump and a series of longitudinal ridges on the posterior part of the back. The flippers are quite small, approximately 200 centimetres (cm) long. Tail flukes are 400 to 450 cm in width.
The blubber layer of the sperm whale is quite thick, up to 35 cm. With respect to coloration, males often become paler and sometimes piebald with age. Both sexes have white in the genital and anal regions and on the lower jaws.
Key species behaviors are: natatorial; motile; social; and dominance hierarchies. Giant sperm whales are very deep divers and may stay submerged from 20 minutes to over an hour. When they surface, sperm whales typically blow 20-70 times before redescending.They produce a visible spout made by the condensation of the moisture combined with a mucous foam from the sinuses. Giant sperm whales typically swim at speeds no faster than 10 kilometres (km) per hour, but when disturbed they can attain speeds of 30 km per hour.
Giant sperm whales are highly gregarious and group themselves roughly by age and sex in group sizes of 100 or more individuals. Loose family groups of about 30 individuals, however, are more common. Groups are often made up of either bachelor bulls (sexually inactive males) or nursery schools of mature females and juveniles of both sexes. Older males are usually solitary except during the breeding season.
Voice and Sound Production
Sperm whales use clicking noises for echolocation, but they also make a variety of other sounds including "groans, whistles, chirps, pings, squeaks, yelps, and wheezes" (Ellis 1980). Their voices are quite loud and can be heard many kilometers away with underwater listening devices. Each whale also emits a stereotyped, repetitive sequence of 3-40 or more clicks when it meets another whale. This sequence is known as the whale's "coda."
Maximum longevity in the wild has been recorded as 77 years.
Key reproductive features are: Iteroparous; Seasonal breeding; Gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); and Viviparous. Females mature sexually at 8-11 years, and males mature at approximately 10 years, although males do not mate until 25-27 years old because they do not have a high enough social status in a breeding school until that point. Gestation period is 14-16 months and a single calf is born, which nurses for up to two years. The reproductive cycle occurs in females every two to five years. The peak of the mating season is in the spring in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres so that most calves are born in the fall.
These whales have a polygamous mating system. During the breeding season, breeding schools composed of one to five large males and a mixed group of females and males of various ages form. At this point, there is intense competition among the males for females (including physical competition resulting in battle scars all over the heads of males). Only about 10-25% of fully adult males in a population are able to breed.
Distribution and Movements
Sperm whales are found throughout the world's oceans in deep waters to the edge of the ice at both poles (Waring et al. 2009 and references therein). According to Waring et al. (2009), results of multi-disciplinary research conducted in the Gulf of Mexico during the first decade of the 21st Century confirm speculation that Gulf of Mexico Sperm Whales constitute a stock that is distinct from other Atlantic Ocean stocks(s).
Sperm whales were commercially hunted in the Gulf of Mexico by American whalers from sailing vessels until the early 1900s. In the northern Gulf of Mexico (i.e., U.S. Gulf of Mexico), systematic aerial and ship surveys indicate that sperm whales inhabit continental slope and oceanic waters, where they are widely distributed. Seasonal aerial surveys confirm that sperm whales are present in at least the northern Gulf of Mexico in all seasons.
The best available estimates indicate a population of around 1500 Sperm whales in the northern Gulf of Mexico. (Waring et al. 2009 and references therein)
Sperm whales swim through deep waters to depths of two miles, apparently limited in depth only by the time it takes to swim down and back to the surface. Their distributions are depend upon season and sexual/social status, however they are most likely to be found in waters inhabited by squid- at least 1000 metres deep and with cold-water upswellings. Because they are so well-adapted for deep water swimming, they are in significant danger of stranding when they move inshore. This species is considered a chiefly benthic feeder and dweller.
Physeter catodon feeds mainly on squid (especially giant squid), octopus and deepwater fishes, but it also takes mollusks, sharks and skates. It consumes approximately three percent of its body mass in squid per day.
Economic Importance for Humans
The head of each sperm whale contains three to four tons of spermaceti, a substance valued as a lubricant for fine machinery and a component of automatic transmission fluid. It is also used in making ointments and fine, smokeless candles (once it solidifies into a white wax upon exposure to air). Physeter catodon has also been a target of commercial whaling in years gone by, notably in areas around the Gulf of Mexico. The meat of the whale is not generally consumed. Instead, spermaceti is extracted from the head, and the teeth are often used as a medium for the artistic form of engraving and carving known as scrimshaw. The most important product obtained from giant sperm whales is the oil once used as fuel for lamps and now used as a lubricant and as the base for skin creams and cosmetics. A gummy substance called ambergris forms in the large intestines of sperm whales and can be found floating on the surface of the water or washed ashore once it is expelled. It was once believed to have medicinal qualities, but it is now used in connection with manufacture of perfumes, based on the fact that when it is exposed to air, it hardens and acquires a sweet, earthy smell. The island Ambergris Cay, just south of the Gulf of Mexico, was given its name because of the great quantities of this substance gathered along its shores.
Being fiercely aggressive, bull giant sperm whales posed a threat to small-boat whalers in the 19th century. Sperm whales are no match for modern whaling equipment, however. They have also been known to become entangled in trans-Atlantic telephone in dives 3/4 mile deep, but this type of incident is rare.
Threats and Conservation Status
Sperm whales have a long history of commercial exploitation. Large-scale hunting began in the year 1712 in the North Atlantic, based at Nantucket in America. They were not widely hunted for their meat, but for ambergris and spermaceti. Ambergris is a substance that collects around the indigestible beaks of squid in the stomach of the whale, and was highly prized for use as a fixative in the perfume industry. Although artificial alternatives are now available, some perfume makers prefer to use ambergris today. Spermatceti was used in the production of cosmetics and candles. Sperm whales still have an economic value today for meat in Japan.
Since the 1980s, the International Whaling Commission brought an international moratorium on whaling into force. Despite this measure, Japan continues to hunt sperm whales, and relatively small numbers are taken each year with hand harpoons at Lamalera, Indonesia. Further threats include entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with boats. Although whaling has, with the exceptions outlined above, largely ceased, the after-effects of such prolonged and intensive hunting are still being felt today. It is thought that the selective hunting of the largest, breeding males will have decreased pregnancy rates, and the loss of the largest females from nursery groups would have decreased the survival of the groups.
The IUCN Red List reports that the "only recent quantitative analysis of sperm whale population trends (Whitehead 2002) suggests that a pre-whaling global population of about 1,100,000 had been reduced by about 29% by 1880 through “open-boat” whaling, and then to approximately 360,000 (67% reduction from initial) by the 1990s through modern whaling. In some areas there is concern that populations are continuing to decline."
As a species, the Sperm whale may not face immediate threat, but some populations need to be carefully monitored, and there is need for tight management of any exploitation. In the eastern tropical Pacific, recent whaling was extremely intensive, and birth rates at present are very low. The Mediterranean Sea population is particularly susceptible to collisions with ships and entanglement with fishing gear.
Sperm whales were once quite abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, but due to commercial whaling operations, they are seldom seen in this area anymore. Worldwide however, sperm whales populations are more stable than that of many other whales, although they continue to be listed as endangered by USDI (1980). The sperm whale is now the most abundant of the great whales, having been hunted with less intensity that the baleen whales. Worldwide, sperm whales number about 1,500,000.
The Sperm Whale is listed Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List and as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. IWC regulations have halted the commercial take of this species. Listed in CITES Appendices I and (for some countries) II. There is some concern over the number of Sperm Whales entangled in fishing gear.
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