Baleen whales (systematic name Mysticeti), also known as whalebone whales, are a parvorder of carnivorous marine mammals of the infraorder Cetacea (whales, dolphins and porpoises) which use keratinaceous baleen plates (or "whalebone") in their mouths to sieve planktonic creatures from the water. Mysticeti comprises the families Balaenidae (right and bowhead whales), Balaenopteridae (rorquals and the gray whale), and Cetotheriidae (the pygmy right whale). There are currently 16 species of baleen whales. While cetaceans were historically thought to have descended from mesonychids, molecular evidence instead supports them as a clade of even-toed ungulates (Artiodactyla). Baleen whales split from toothed whales (Odontoceti) around 34 million years ago.
|Humpback whale breaching|
Baleen whales range in size from the 6 m (20 ft) and 3,000 kg (6,600 lb) pygmy right whale to the 31 m (102 ft) and 190 t (210 short tons) blue whale, the largest known animal to have ever existed. They are sexually dimorphic. Baleen whales can have streamlined or large bodies, depending on the feeding behavior, and two limbs that are modified into flippers. The fin whale is the fastest baleen whale, recorded swimming at 10 m/s (36 km/h; 22 mph). Baleen whales use their baleen plates to filter out food from the water by either lunge-feeding or skim-feeding. Baleen whales have fused neck vertebrae, and are unable to turn their heads at all. Baleen whales have two blowholes. Some species are well adapted for diving to great depths. They have a layer of fat, or blubber, under the skin to keep warm in the cold water.
Although baleen whales are widespread, most species prefer the colder waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Gray whales are specialized for feeding on bottom-dwelling crustaceans. Rorquals are specialized at lunge-feeding, and have a streamlined body to reduce drag while accelerating. Right whales skim-feed, meaning they use their enlarged head to effectively take in a large amount of water and sieve the slow-moving prey. Males typically mate with more than one female (polygyny), although the degree of polygyny varies with the species. Male strategies for reproductive success vary between performing ritual displays (whale song) or lek mating. Calves are typically born in the winter and spring months and females bear all the responsibility for raising them. Mothers fast for a relatively long period of time over the period of migration, which varies between species. Baleen whales produce a number of infrasonic vocalizations, notably the songs of the humpback whale.
The meat, blubber, baleen, and oil of baleen whales have traditionally been used by the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Once relentlessly hunted by commercial industries for these products, cetaceans are now protected by international law. These protections have allowed their numbers to recover. However, the North Atlantic right whale is ranked endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Besides hunting, baleen whales also face threats from marine pollution and ocean acidification. It has been speculated that man-made sonar results in strandings. They have rarely been kept in captivity, and this has only been attempted with juveniles or members of one of the smallest species.