Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)


The Sperm whale (order: Cetacean) is the largest member of the toothed whale suborder (Odontoceti), a group which also includes Dolphins, Porpoises, Killer whales, Beaked whales, the Narwhal and Beluga. Other whales such as Humpbacks, Right whales, Bowheads, Minkes and the Great Blue whale belong to the suborder Mysticeti which have mouths containing baleen plates for filtering food instead of teeth. The Sperm whale is unique in that its teeth occur only on the bottom jaw, probably because its prey are mainly slippery invertebrates (such as squid), so grasping and holding would be more important than biting and chewing.

Made famous for its appearance as the avenging albino leviathon in “Moby Dick”, the Sperm whale is indeed an imposing creature: it is the largest toothed carnivore on the planet, reaching up to 60 feet long and 63 tons, with males typically being one and a half times the size of females. This species’ name comes from its spermiceti organ, located in its strikingly large head, which contains an oily substance (spermiceti) that dries waxy and white and was historically sought after as a fuel source. It is believed that by directing blood flow to this organ, the sperm whale can control its diving depth. With changes in flow spermiceti melts, becoming bouyant at warmer temperatures, or solidifies, becoming heavy and sinking at cooler temperatures. Another unique feature of this species is its use of echolocation to find and hunt food. The spermiceti organ may help to focus and control the beam of sound which targets its prey.

Sperm whales can be found in all the worlds’ oceans and at all latitudes, prefering deep waters of 200 meters or more. They have been hunted until only recently and are currently listed as threatened, with a population of about a million.


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