Blue Whale – the largest known animal ever
The blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, is the largest known animal ever to have lived on sea or land. Individuals can reach more than 110 feet and weigh nearly 200 tons, more than the weight of 50 adult elephants. The blue whale is a marine mammal belonging to the baleen whales (Mysticeti).
Long and slender, the blue whale’s body can be various shades of bluish-grey dorsally and somewhat lighter underneath. Blue whales were abundant in nearly all the oceans on Earth until the beginning of the twentieth century. For over a century, they were hunted almost to extinction by whalers until protected by the international community in 1966. A 2002 report estimated there were 5,000 to 12,000 blue whales worldwide, located in at least five groups. More recent research into the Pygmy subspecies suggests this may be an underestimate. Before whaling, the largest population was in the Antarctic, numbering approximately 239,000 (range 202,000 to 311,000). There remain only much smaller (around 2,000) concentrations in each of the eastern North Pacific, Antarctic, and Indian Ocean groups. There are two more groups in the North Atlantic, and at least two in the Southern Hemisphere.
The blue whale has a long tapering body that appears stretched in comparison with the stockier build of other whales. The head is flat, U-shaped and has a prominent ridge running from the blowhole to the top of the upper lip. The front part of the mouth is thick with baleen plates; around 300 plates (each around one metre (3.2 ft) long) hang from the upper jaw, running 0.5 m (1.6 ft) back into the mouth. Between 70 and 118 grooves (called ventral pleats) run along the throat parallel to the body length. These pleats assist with evacuating water from the mouth after lunge feeding.
Blue whales can reach speeds of 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph) over short bursts, usually when interacting with other whales, but 20 kilometres per hour (12 mph) is a more typical traveling speed. When feeding, they slow down to 5 kilometres per hour (3.1 mph).
Blue whales most commonly live alone or with one other individual. It is not known how long traveling pairs stay together. In locations where there is a high concentration of food, as many as 50 blue whales have been seen scattered over a small area. They do not form the large, close-knit groups seen in other baleen species.
An adult blue whale can eat up to 40 million krill in a day. The whales always feed in the areas with the highest concentration of krill, sometimes eating up to 3,600 kilograms (7,900 lb) of krill in a single day. The daily energy requirement of an adult blue whale is in the region of 1.5 million kilocalories. Their feeding habits are seasonal. Blue whales gorge on krill in the rich waters of the Antarctic before migrating to their breeding grounds in the warmer, less-rich waters nearer the equator. The blue whale can take in up to 90 times as much energy as it expends, allowing it to build up considerable energy reserves.
Scientists estimate that blue whales can live for at least 80 years, but since individual records do not date back into the whaling era, this will not be known with certainty for many years. The longest recorded study of a single individual is 34 years, in the eastern North Pacific. The whales’ only natural predator is the orca. Studies report that as many as 25% of mature blue whales have scars resulting from orca attacks. The mortality rate of such attacks is unknown.
Blue whale hunting was banned in 1966 by the International Whaling Commission, and illegal whaling by the USSR finally halted in the 1970s, by which time 330,000 blue whales had been caught in the Antarctic, 33,000 in the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, 8,200 in the North Pacific, and 7,000 in the North Atlantic. The largest original population, in the Antarctic, had been reduced to 0.15% of their initial numbers.
Since the introduction of the whaling ban, studies have failed to ascertain whether the conservation reliant global blue whale population is increasing or remaining stable. In the Antarctic, best estimates show a significant increase at 7.3% per year since the end of illegal Soviet whaling, but numbers remain at under 1% of their original levels. It has also been suggested that Icelandic and Californian populations are increasing but these increases are not statistically significant. The total world population was estimated to be between 5,000 and 12,000 in 2002, although there are high levels of uncertainty in available estimates for many areas.
Due to their enormous size, power and speed, adult blue whales have virtually no natural predators. There is one documented case in National Geographic Magazine of a blue whale being attacked by orcas off the Baja California Peninsula; although the orcas were unable to kill the animal outright during their attack, the blue whale sustained serious wounds and probably died as a result of them shortly after the attack. Up to a quarter of the blue whales identified in Baja bear scars from orca attacks.