Why Do Whales Slap Their Tails?


One of the most amazing behaviors of whales to see is when they slap their tails on the water. Not only is it an incredible sight, but the sound is unforgettable too.

Whales slap their tails to communicate with other whales and as part of their mating rituals. Whales also slap their tails to scare off predators or other males and to remove parasites and barnacles.

Whales have many interesting behaviors but lobtailing is one of my favorites. If you want to find out more, then please read on.

If you or someone you know loves whales then check out these great whale gifts on Amazon by clicking here

Lobtailing

Lobtailing is another name for the tail slap. This is a behavior of whales when they lift their tail fin out of the water and bring it down with great force to slap the ocean’s surface. 

The resultant effect is a loud ‘’wham’’ and a big splash of water. Lobtailing is very common with whales, and it captures the attention of most whale watchers. 

The slap can be heard for some distance above and below the surface of the water. This can lead to a call and response reaction from other whales. If you see one whale lobtail, there is a good chance of seeing one or more other whales answering the call.

Mammals use their tails in many ways.  Find out more in this article I wrote

Why Do Whales Lobtail?

Whales slap their tails as a means of communication, to warn away predators or other males, and to impress a potential mate.

Different species of whale lobtail differently. Humpback whales will lobtail repeatedly. They will raise their tail back and forth many times to slap the water. In most cases, they will stop to take a breath before continuing.

Ever wondered why whales breach? Find out here

Communication

Whales will slap their tail to send messages to enemies or mates. Although other marine animals do not understand the message, this activity is used for signaling other whales.

The functionality of lobtailing as a way of communication in whales seems to be the most likely reason for the behavior, but lobtailing seems to have a couple of functions.

Scientists know that tail slapping produces percussive sound, which travels a long distance underwater. This indicates that this serves as a means of communicating.  

However, by slapping their tail on the water’s surface, the intensity underneath the water is diminished. It is unknown if whales make the same sound under the surface.

Whales will increase the force of the slap depending on the distance they want the message to travel. Big splashes are for long-distance messages, while smaller ones are for signaling over shorter distances.

A study by Ailbhe Kavanagh at Queensland University revealed some interesting information. The study targeted ninety-four different groups of humpback whales as they migrated from the Queensland coast from 2010 to 2011. 

The study showed that humpback whales would regularly leap out of the water, known as breaching. After this, the whales would repetitively slap their tails. The sound from the waves traveled underwater to send messages to other whales around them.

If you want to know why mammals have tails (and we don’t) then click here

Does Lobtailing Remove Parasites?

Whales also lobtail to remove parasites from their skin. The tail slap will remove parasites and barnacles that have built up on the tail.

Many types of parasites will hold on to whales for food and shelter. One of these parasites is the whale louse that can hide in the genitals, nostrils, and eyes. 

When whales get overwhelmed by these parasites, they have been seen to slap their tails to remove them. 

Do whales drink seawater?  Find out in this article I wrote

Do Whales Lobtail When Migrating?

Whales also lobtail when migrating, but the patterns change. When whales are traveling long distances, their main focus is on swimming. Migrating whales minimize their activities of slapping their tail to conserve energy when migrating.

Have you ever wondered why whales migrate? I have written an article that will answer your questions, which you can find here

Does Lobtailing Help Their Songs?

Migrating whales are known to sing. Some whales make vocal sounds such as barks, grumbles, snorts, groans, and whoops when they are migrating. 

Another way of signaling is to slap their tails as a way of creating rhythm. This is one of the reasons why you can observe whales lobtailing together. 

It has also been discovered that the force of the tail slap increased in humpback whales when the wind was stronger because the sounds were less audible, with males slapping their tails more than females.

Do Whales Lobtail During Breeding Season?

Whales also lobtail during the breeding season to communicate with the opposite gender. In most cases, the male will lobtail, then the female will respond. This is one of the simplest ways that whales communicate. 

Why do rats have really long tails?  Find out here

Do Whales Use Tail Slaps To Get Attention?

For some whale species, especially those with a complex social organization, tail slapping is a signal for attention. Whales will lobtail as a way of notifying other species of their presence. 

Whales have excellent senses. Find out more here

whale tail

Find out how whales evolved in this article I wrote

Is Lobtailing Connected To Whales Breaching?

Whales are known to jump out of the water, which is called breaching. There are no clear indications that breaching and lobtailing are connected. However, scientists do believe that whales jump out of the water to communicate with other animals. 

This is common among migrating humpback whales to send signals to other whales in the area. As with lobtailing, whales jumping out of water is a signal to other groups.

Do Whales Lobtail All Year?

Humpback whales lobtail year-round because they have to communicate with each other. This behavior happens regardless of whether the opposite gender is there or not, and it also happens outside of the mating season. This is a clear indication that the behavior goes beyond the common breeding functions.

If you or someone you know loves whales then check out these great whale gifts on Amazon by clicking here

References

Bernhard Grzimek, Schlager, N., Olendorf, D. and American (2003). Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale.

Carwardine, M. (2010). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Carwardine, M. (2017). Mark Carwardine’s guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico, where to go, what to see. London: Bloomsbury.

Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell and Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Whales, dolphins and seals : a field guide to the marine mammals of the world. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Martin, T. (1990). The illustrated encyclopedia of whales and dolphins. Hodder.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B.G. and J  G  M Thewissen (2002). Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Richard John Harrison and Bryden, M.M. (1990). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Merehurst.

Williams, H. (1988). Whale nation. London: Cape.

Wilson, D.E. (1999). The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. Press.

May, J. (1990). The Greenpeace book of dolphins. London: Century.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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