Do Whales Have Teeth?

In a whale’s mouth: baleen vs toothed whales

Humpback whale
Whales filter-feed on small crustaceans and small fish, consuming up to 2,000 lbs. food per day. Sounds like there's always room for dessert! Credit: Wikimedia/NOAA. The National Marine Sanctuary System.

Millions of people enjoy whale watching every year, thrilled to see a colossal whale breaching the ocean surface or its flukes slapping on the waves. If a person wants to whale watch or research various species, learning about their anatomy, even their teeth, is essential. An intriguing question to study is whether whales have teeth.

Toothed vs Baleen whales

The scientific order Cetacea includes aquatic mammals, including whales, dolphins, and porpoises. It is further divided into two main groups: Toothed whales (suborder Odontoceti) and Bleen whales (suborder Mysticeti). 

Toothed whales have teeth, including sperm, killer, and beluga whales. 

Baleen whales (suborder Mysticeti) do not have teeth but have a specialized filtering system called a baleen. These whales include the blue, humpback, gray, and minke whales.

Baleen or whalebone - UBC Biodiversity Museum. Credit: Wikimedia/Randall Wade (Rand) Grant

Baleen whales

Baleen whales’ unique filtering system is called baleen and is composed of fibrous keratin, which makes up the filters that gather zooplankton. The baleen hangs in laminae (thin plate or scale) from the palate of whales, where it filters small planktonic prey from seawater. Hundreds of these plates in its upper jaw act like a filter. The whale scoops up ocean water, and the baleen allows the water to drain and hold shrimp, krill, and other crustaceans.

Lunging whales

A lunging whale, such as a humpback or blue whale, swims at high speeds by moving its fluke (tail). It opens its mouth and takes in water at a 90-degree angle. This action allows the whale to engulf about 70,000 liters (about 18492.04 gal) of water that contains nearly 10 kg (22.74 lbs.) of krill.

Gray whales

The gray whale is the only living species in the genus Eschrichitus. The gray whale is notable because it slides its head on the ocean bottom and draws sediment into its baleen to locate crustaceans, krill, and plankton.

Toothed whales

Whales with teeth pursue and consume fish, squid, seals, birds, and other marine mammals. Their torpedo-shaped body can have up to 240 wedge-shaped teeth used to bite and grasp prey. Toothed whales hunt in pods using echolocation. A whale emits a natural sound wave by moving air in its sinuses and reflecting it off an ocean object or animal. The whale’s lower jaw receives the reflected sound before it reaches the middle ear.

Sperm Whale Teeth
Sperm Whale Teeth (probably of 1950s catch). Credit; Wikimedia/Lord Mountbatten

Sperm whale

Sperm whales have 52 heavy conical teeth in their lower jaw, each weighing a kilogram. An adaptation of the head allows the lower teeth to fit neatly into compartments in the upper jaw so the whale can close its jaws. The whales use echolocation to hunt giant squid, and other delicacies include octopus, fish, or crustaceans.

Orca—Killer whale

Orca whales, known as killer whales, are clever hunters with conical-shaped interlocking 56 teeth. Orcas, in pods of up to five family members, encircle their prey to surround them.

 Killer whales are known to ram their prey, like the narwhal, to break its ribs, bite them, and slap them with their tails. Orcas consume sea lions, rays, cephalopods (octopods and squids) and dolphins.

True’s beaked whale

The True’s beaked whale is a deep diver with a single pair of teeth on its bottom jaw. But they can catch squid and small fish with ease.

Impressive dental anatomy

Each whale species has a unique dental anatomy that has helped them adapt and survive. If you are ever whale watching, you will be able to appreciate how whales acquire their food in the oceans they travel.

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