How Do Baleen Whales Feed?


I was recently asked about baleen whales and what techniques they use to collect food.

There are three families of baleen whales, and all three use different techniques to feed. Right whales and the bowhead whale use filter feeding, gray whales use a bottom-feeding technique, and rorquals use bubble net feeding, gulp feeding and circle feeding.

If you want to find out how whales use baleen to feed, this is the article for you.

How Do Whales Use Baleen?

Baleen whales have a row of triangular plates that are closely packed together, hanging from each side of the roof of the mouth. The plates are made from the same material as our human fingernails, keratin. There are up to 400 baleen plates in the mouth, and they have a hairy fringe on the inside.  

Baleen is closest in structure to fingernails or hair.

Baleen whales use a method of filter-feeding to take in large quantities of water and food at the same time. The fringes overlap inside, which forms a mat, through which the baleen whales feed. They filter water through the mat, straining any food from the water.

The whales use their tongue to sweep the food from the baleen mat, down into the throat. This wears the baleen fibers down, although these grow back, much like our fingernails.

Want to know where you can watch whales in North America. I have compiled a guide which you can find here.

Family Balaenidae

Bowhead Whale, North Atlantic Right Whale, North Pacific Right Whale, Southern Right Whale

The bowhead whale, North Atlantic right whale, North Pacific right whale, and the Southern right whales all feed similarly. As members of the Balaenidae family, all four species of whales have long baleen plates, which provide an area large enough to pass the water through.  

The plates can be up to 4 meters long in bowhead whales, and up to 2.7 meters long in the other whales. The shape of the jaw and lips of these whales are due to the baleen. The shape allows them to scoop up water whilst swimming slowly forward.

The fibers on the baleen catch tiny plankton. Unlike other baleen whales, the fibers are very fine, allowing them to catch organisms as small as 2.5mm long.  

Right whales are masters of skim feeding. Right whales swim forward with their mouths open, allowing the water to pass through the mouth and out the baleen plates.

These plates, which are at the sides, allow their food to be caught. They will then use their tongues to remove the organisms and to push them into their digestive systems.  

Skim feeding is generally done at the surface of the water, and right whales can be seen with just their upper jaw out of the water. However, they will also feed at different depths in the sea, including near the seabed.  

The skim feeding technique also plays a large part in the difference in the shape and body of the whales. Unlike other ways of feeding, there is no need for the throat to expand, and the large pleats called ventral grooves that are seen on other families of whales are absent.

As the whale swims forward, their mouths are partly open. The water streams out from the inside through the baleen plates, whereas in other families of whales, large amounts of water need to be expelled. Right whales have long baleen, causing the mouth to be arched.

Family Balaenopteridae

Blue Whale, Bryde’s Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale, Sei Whale, Humpback Whale

Members of this family, rorquals, have a unique anatomy that allows them to feed. All members of the family have an elastic, pleated tissue that runs along their underside, from the lower jaw to the umbilicus. These pleats, or grooves, range from between fifty in sei whales, to ninety in blue whales.  

Rorquals use a technique called gulp feeding. The whales take in huge amounts of water, before closing their mouths, and expelling the water through the baleen.  Rorquals have smaller heads, with shorter baleen plates.

Being faster than right whales, rorquals are able to take in large amounts of prey over a shorter time.

The baleen expands when feeding, and the jaw can be opened very big to allow the large amounts of water and food to enter. Rorqual whales have a tissue at the sides of their jaw, which is elastic, allowing the jaw to open up to 90 degrees wide.

The pleated throat allows rorquals to expand the throat like a concertina. This allows them to increase the capacity in their mouths when feeding. Many tonnes of seawater is filtered in every mouthful.

The whale lunges forward to capture water and food, before forcing the water out in two ways. They let the water out through the gap between the sides of the top and bottom jaws. They also squeeze the water through the baleen plates on their underside.

Any organisms captured in the mouth are then pushed down the throat and swallowed. They normally use their tongues to take the food off their teeth and down their throat. Due to the size of the whale, their tongues are equally large. Their tongues have a rough texture and cover the entire floor of their mouth.  

Blue, fin, and humpback whales all feed using the gulp feeding method. All three whales are exceptionally large, and due to their size, they need larger prey.

Being larger, their baleen fibers are also more coarse. This allows them to eat larger prey, such as fish and crustaceans.  

Sei whales have special adaptations that make them the only rorquals that use skim feeding regularly. Sei whales use this technique due to much finer baleen fibers than other rorquals. The fibers allow them to swim forward with their jaws open at a narrower angle, allowing them to capture much smaller organisms.

Rorquals use many techniques to catch their prey. Humpback whales use a mechanism called bubble net feeding.  

Bubbles are made underwater by the whales, which float to the surface. The whales can release these bubbles in a straight line, called a curtain.

The bubbles rise to the surface, and fish and other prey will not usually pass through or around these bubbles. This allows the whale to then feed in a straight line along the ‘curtain’ to swallow all the fish.

In the case of bubble-net feeding, the whales will swim around in a circle, releasing the bubbles underwater. As the bubbles reach the surface, the fish get caught in between the ‘net.’ Fish and krill can be seen jumping in the center of the circle of bubbles before the whale comes crashing through the surface of the water with its mouth open, eating everything inside the bubbles.

Blue whale

Humpback whales can carry out this feeding on their own, but unusually for whales, they can also use bubble net feeding in larger groups. Sometimes humpback whales will pair up to feed, but groups of 24 have been noted with some of these feeding together year after year.

Fin whales have a different type of feeding technique that they use. Fin whales swim on their sides in a circle. When looking at a fin whale, if all you can see is one half of the tail fluke, then it is likely they are feeding.

Fin whales are white on the sides of their heads, and it is thought that the white confuses and scares the fish and plankton to the surface. When at the surface, fin whales will then propel themselves forward to gulp down the prey.

If you want to know where you can watch blue whales, I have written an article which you can find here.

Family Eschrichtiidae

Gray Whale

Whereas right whales have a very arched mouth, the gray whale has a much smaller arch. This allows the baleen to be much shorter and coarser.  

Gray whales do have throat pleats, but where rorquals have between twenty and ninety pleats, the gray whale only has one, or on rare occasions, two pairs.  

The gray whale is unique among baleen whales in the way it feeds. Whereas both rorquals and right whales feed at the surface of the water, gray whales do not.  

Gray whales collect their food from just above the ocean floor, or the layer of mud on the ocean floor.

When looking at gray whales, it is noticeable that the short, coarse baleen on one of their sides is much more worn than that on the other. This allowed researchers to discover that gray whales forage while on their side. 

Gray whales can be seen in many places in North America. To find out where, I have written an article which you can read here.

Gray whales disturb the mud of the seafloor, stirring it up by using the snout to bring invertebrates out of the mud. Gray whales also press their tongue against the bottom of their mouth, causing suction through their mouths. By drawing in the water in this way, they can then force it out again through the baleen. Any mud that is taken in is forced back through the baleen with the tongue.

Although it was originally thought that all gray whales fed on their right side, this has proven to be false. The absence of barnacles on the left side of some gray whales proves that some are ‘lefties.’ The whales, when feeding, rub the barnacles off against the ocean floor.

Have you ever wondered if whales drink seawater. To find out the answer, please check out my article here.

References

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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.

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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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