Whales are classified into two categories: baleen and toothed. In a previous article, we looked at what makes baleen whales unique. Here, we’ll take a closer look at toothed whales. These include dolphins, porpoises and killer whales, as well as sperm and beaked whales. Here are five of the most charismatic out of the 65 species of toothed whales.
Biggest species: sperm whale
The sperm whale is the biggest species of toothed whale, as well as the largest toothed predator in the oceans. Males average around 53 feet (16 m) but the largest can reach up to 66 feet (20 m). Their brain is also the largest known in any animal, weighing up to 18 pounds (8 kilos). They are one of the deepest divers among marine mammals as well. Sperm whales can reach depths of over 6,500 feet (2,000 m) in pursuit of prey and hold their breath for up to 90 minutes. Their large, distinctive block-shaped head makes them easy to identify. You’ll find them in all oceans, and they are protected in most areas of the world. Some spots to see them include New Zealand, the Azores, Norway and Dominica.
Species with the longest tooth: narwhal
Historically portrayed as a mythical creature, the narwhal is of course very much a real animal. Males, and very rarely females, possesses a distinctive “tusk” that can reach up to 15 feet long (3 m). Narwhals were previously hunted for this tusk, which was often passed off as “unicorn horn.” Scientists think the tusk is a communication tool and sensory organ rather than a hunting tool. You’ll find these distinctive whales in the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean around Canada, Greenland and Russia. The estimates for global population are varied and the species is considered near-threatened.
Most endangered species: vaquita
The vaquita is a small porpoise that is endemic to the Gulf of California. Sadly, it has been considered for the last few years as the most-endangered cetacean in the world and is nearly extinct. The latest population estimates include only a few dozen individuals, which means near-certain extinction. Vaquitas met this sad fate entirely because of human activity, mostly by becoming bycatch from illegal fishing operations, as well as suffering from habitat destruction and pollution. A breeding program is currently under trial to see if captive breeding would be possible.
Best hunter: killer whale
Easily identifiable and one of the most popular animals in the ocean, the orca or killer whale is actually a porpoise and a very talented predator. Using its speed and strength to reach its prey, as well as high intelligence, they use sophisticated team techniques among pod members to hunt. They hunt everything from herring to sharks, including great whites, by pushing them to the surface and then smashing them with their tail to stun them. To attack bigger prey like humpback whales, individuals in the pod take turns ramming and biting the whale, generally wearing it for hours until exhaustion overtakes it.
Rarest species: the spade-toothed whale
We know very little about this species that was only properly described a few years ago. Part of the beaked-whale family, it has never been seen alive. Scientists studied two specimens in New Zealand in 2010 after the whales became stranded. This is where most of our data about this species comes from. They belong to the beaked-whale family, but given the lack of data, we do not know how big their population might be or where we might find them.