What Do Whales Eat?

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Have you ever wondered, “What do whales eat?” For whales of all sizes, whale food is integral to their survival and population maintenance. Whale feeding habits are also equally as important for the keeping a balance within the ocean’s vast ecosystem. With up to 90 different species of animals within the cetacean family, of which whales are a member, there exist a wide variety of methods used to locate, isolate, and immobilize whale food.  There are a number of different factors that determine the feeding habits of a whale and their particular whale food, which include environment, size, social structure, species type, and more. These factors work together to determine whether a whale will consume smaller aquatic species of whale food such as shrimp, plankton, fish, krill, or crab, or whether they consume larger whale food forms such as seals, sharks, sea lion, or even other whales.

How Do Whales Eat?

These majestic sea mammals are quite amazing in the way that they navigate the ocean waters to find and consume their whale food. One common question is how do whales eat their whale food? The process by which whales locate their food and intake their food differs depending on the particular whale species. Here’s some information on how whales eat their food, specifically for the baleen whale and the toothed whale.

Baleen Whales: Unlike toothed whales, baleen whales (humpbacks, minkes, and right whales) do not have teeth. Instead, they possess bristles, much like the bristles of a comb, that act as a net to capture prey. Baleen whales are known to engage in filter feeding, a unique method of hunting, which involves grazing the surface of the ocean to capture tiny morsels of whale food. The baleen whale is known to have what are called baleen plates that hang in their mouth from the upper jaw. These bristles are used to capture tiny crustaceans in their mouths as they swim through the ocean. Baleen whales have massive tongues which are used for squeezing the excess water out of their mouths captured during the initial food intake and wiping the baleen clean before swallowing their prey whole.

Toothed Whales: Toothed whales (sperm whales, white whales, beaked whales) use a very specific hunting method to catch their prey: Echolocation. Echolocation occurs when the whale emits a collection of busing and clicking noises. The whale will then listen to the echoes of the sounds made that bounce off of nearby objects. The length of time required for the echo to return to the whale indicates the distance of whale food, the density of the whale food, and even if the whale food is moving or sitting still. Echolocation is not only useful for locating whale food, but can also indicate whether predator or inanimate objects are close. It is a unique method helpful for navigating the dark waters of the sea, helping these large sea mammals avoid dangerous situations and find whale food.

Toothed whales are hunters. Once they locate their whale food via echolocation, toothed whales will chase and capture their prey. How do these whales eat? They swallow their prey whole!

Do Whales Eat Fish?

Commonly many whales are known for feeding on krill and other tiny crustaceans, but many are left wondering: Do whales eat fish or octopus? It is true that many whale species prefer feeding on small morsels of food, but there is one species in particular that can eat larger fish: the sperm whale. The sperm whale, the largest toothed whale in existence, will usually consume whale food including large squid, fish, and octopus.  It is believed that sperm whales consuming an astonishing 220 billion pounds of squid every year. It is not uncommon to see small, circular marks around the head of a sperm whale, brought on by octopus and squid attaching to head in an attempt to avoid being eaten.

Toothed Whales: What Do They Eat?

The type of whale food a whale eats is largely determined by whether they have teeth or not. Toothed whales are known to be active hunters, as they have teeth to consume larger whale food.  The majority of toothed whales will eat whale food species such as squid, octopus, crustaceans and fish. Other toothed whales, such as the killer whale, will hunt bigger marine mammals including whale food such as seals, sharks, birds, and even other whales. In addition to hunting and feeding on larger whale food, killer whales are also known for hunting in groups. They have been viewed engaging in seemingly coordinated attacks of their prey, much like a pack of wolves.  The killer whale will rarely separate from its pod, except when mating, or in some cases, when foraging for whale food. Otherwise, they spend most of their lives maintaining very strong family bonds.

Hunting in groups is not only characteristic of the killer whale, as other species of toothed whales have been viewed feeding in groups. These whales are believed to hunt together due their smaller sizes in some cases, as well as their more complex social bonds.

Baleen Whales: What do They Eat?

Unlike toothed whales, baleen whales do not have teeth. Instead, they possess bristles, much like the bristles of a comb, that act as a net to capture prey. Baleen whales are known to engage in filter feeding, a unique method of hunting. With filter feeding, a baleen whale will swim with its mouth open towards its prey. Once the whale food is caught, they will close their mouths and push the excess water out with the tongue. Their bristles ensure that the whale food does not escape. The prey is then swallowed whole.

Baleen whales will feed by swimming through schools of fish and others forms of whale food, or may even skim the water’s surface with an open mouth to capture prey at the surface.

In addition to filter feeding, some baleen whales utilize a method known as bubble netting. With bubble netting, several whales will surround a group of whale food, blowing bubbles around the fish to get them in a ball towards the surface. After the fish have been herded, the whales will take turns feeding on the helpless prey.

One species of whale known to utilize bubble netting for feeding is the humpback whale. Also known as lunge netting, the humpbacks will usually target whale food like herring, blowing bubbles to herd them into a group. Other whales participating will scare the fish by making loud noises, causing them to head towards the surface. Once at the surface, the humpback whales will lunge towards the fish with open mouths, consuming as many fish as they can.

In most cases, baleen whales will engage in solitary behaviors when it comes to hunting for prey. However, certain species or pods of baleen whales will participate in group efforts to locate and capture food.

Bottom Feeding

Some whales, such as the grey whale, rely on prey found at the bottom of the ocean. These bottom feeders will swim to the bottom of the ocean, and then roll on their sides. By doing this, they are able to disrupt sea sediments and prey. They will then capture the small fish, crabs, plankton, or other sea creatures that come up.

The grey whale can eat a spectacular 3,000 pounds of food every single day.

Conclusion

While toothed whales tend to consume a varied diet of small and larger prey, baleen whales will hunt small prey they can swallow whole and in large quantities. No matter the species of whale, they have each adapted to their environments and personal attributes in order to thrive and eat well. The various methods of hunting utilized by whales, including echolocation, bubble netting, and filter feeding, have all proven effective in locating, isolating, and consuming different types of prey.

When asking the question, “What do whales eat?” one only needs to look to the location, marine life, climate, and social structure of a specific species of whale. It is with these factors the unique diet of a whale can be identified and studied.

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