The Two Different Kinds of Whales in the World: Toothed Whales vs. Baleen Whales


There are about 86 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the world’s oceans, and they are divided into two distinct groups: Mysticetes (baleen whales) and Odontocetes (toothed whales). There is a very different body morphology between whales with teeth and whales with baleen, as well as a big difference in what/how they eat. Baleen whales eat by taking a large amount of water into their mouths, shutting their mouth, and moving their tongue up to the roof of their mouth which forces all the water out through the baleen. The baleen acts as a filter, trapping food, like krill, in the whale’s mouth, and the whale then swallows. Toothed whales on the other hand eat larger prey such as fish, squid, some marine mammals such as seals, and sometimes even birds. They use their teeth to latch onto their prey and subsequently break it into smaller pieces. Examples of the two different types of whales are outlined below:

The Humpback Whale- a Baleen Whale 
Humpback Whales can be up to 52 feet long, and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. They live in most of the world’s oceans, and they are frequent visitors of the New England waters! As you can see from the close up picture of a Humpback’s mouth, they have baleen instead of teeth. Their diets consists of small fish and krill. Their populations are currently on the rise, and they have been labeled under the least conscern category on the endangerment scale.


The Sperm Whale- a Toothed Whale

Mature male Sperm Whales can reach lengths of up to 67 feet long. Sperm whales are the largest toothed predators on the planet, and they dive to extreme depths, up to 7,382 feet deep, to find their favorite prey: the Giant Squid. Giant Squid can be up to 43 feet long, have 6 short and 2 long tentacles, the longer ones used for grabbing prey, and have a large beak for a mouth. On their tentacles they have powerful suckers, each lined with rows of teeth. These leave large, circular scars on the bodies of Sperm Whales during battles, which allow scientists to further study these elusive creatures. Sperm whales use their sharp teeth to latch onto the slippery squid, and other prey, making it nearly impossible for them to escape once caught. Sperm Whales are also extremely intelligent, making them an excellent predator.

Posted by Emily B.

Emily is a summer, 2017 intern at the National Marine Life Center.