Is a whale a mammal?

Although whales are aquatic creatures, spending all their time in the sea, they are indeed mammals, just like us. What makes a whale, which at first sight resembles a fish, a mammal? Whales give birth to live offspring (whereas fish hatch their young from eggs), and feed their young (called calves) on milk produced by the female’s own body. Whales are also warm-blooded, meaning that, unlike cold-blooded fish, whose body temperature varies according to their environment, whales regulate their body temperature by means of their metabolism.

Whales belong to the zoological order of marine mammals called Cetacea (which also includes dolphins and porpoises). All such mammals, known as cetaceans, have a blowhole on the top of the head for breathing, a streamlined body, and a horizontal fluke (a type of fin) on the tail. There are two main types (suborders) of whale and they are categorized zoologically by their eating apparatus:

  • The suborder of toothed whales (Odontoceti) includes killer whales, narwhals, dolphins, and porpoises. As the name suggests, they have teeth and their diet includes fish, penguins, and seals.
  • Baleen whales (suborder Mysticeti ), such as humpback whales and rorquals, eat huge amounts of tiny plankton, which they filter into their mouths via plates of baleen (whalebone). The word baleen comes from Latin balaena, which means ‘whale’.


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