Sperm whale - Physeter macrocephalus
Taxonomy & Nomenclature
Physical Description / Field Identification
The largest toothed cetacean, the sperm whale, is unlikely to be confused with any other species. The body is somewhat laterally compressed and the head is huge (one-quarter to one-third of the total length, and an even greater proportion of the total bulk) and squarish when viewed from the side. The lower jaw is narrow and underslung. The single S-shaped blowhole is set at the front of the head and is offset to the left. The flippers are wide and spatulate, and the flukes are broad and triangular with a nearly straight trailing edge, rounded tips, and a deep notch. There is a low rounded dorsal hump and a series of bumps, or crenulations, on the dorsal ridge of the tail stock. The body surface tends to be wrinkled behind the head. Many adult females have calluses on the dorsal hump, whereas males almost never have them.
Sperm whales are predominantly black to brownish-gray, with white areas around the mouth and often on the belly. Functional teeth (18-26 pairs that fit into sockets in the upper jaw) are present in the lower jaw only. The bushy blow projects up to 5 m and, because of the position of the blowhole, is directed forward and to the left. On windless days, such an angled blow is diagnostic.
Newborn sperm whales are 3.5-4.5 m long. Adult females are up to 12 m and adult males are up to 18 m in length. Weights of up to 57 tons have been recorded.
Can be Confused With
Sperm whales are generally easy to distinguish from other large whales at sea, even at a great distance. The uniquely-angled blow is diagnostic, but one must be careful to take into account the effects of wind on a whale’s blow. Only humpbacks, and possibly gray whales would be likely to be confused with sperm whales, and this only at a great distance.
Sperm whales are somewhat migratory and are distributed from the tropics to the pack ice edges in both hemispheres, although generally only large males venture to the extreme northern and southern portions of the range (poleward of 40° latitude). Deep divers, sperm whales tend to inhabit oceanic waters, but they do come close to shore where submarine canyons or other physical features bring deep water near the coast.
Ecology and Behavior
Although bulls are sometimes seen singly (especially above 40° latitude), sperm whales are more often found in medium to large groups of 20-30, but can occur in groups of up to 50 or so whales. In the past twenty years or so, the social system of sperm whales has been relatively well-studied. Apparently they are polygynous; adult males seem to employ a "searching" strategy for mating, associating with nursery groups of adult females and their offspring for only short periods of time. Sexually-mature, but non-breeding, males that have been displaced from their natal pods form bachelor herds. Most births occur in summer and fall.
Sperm whales are deep divers, apparently capable of reaching depths of 3,200 m or more. Most commonly they dive to about 400 m and 35 minutes. Some dives of bulls, which are longer than those of the smaller cows, last as long as two hours. Fluking-up is common before a long dive. Low-frequency, stereotyped, clicked vocalizations, some of which are termed "codas," are apparently distinct to groups of sperm whales and may act as acoustic signatures. Some clicks are also probably used in echolocation.
Feeding and Prey
An amazing variety of cephalopods, deep-sea fish, and non-food items have been found in the stomachs of sperm whales from around the world. Cephalopods (squid and octopuses), however, are considered to be the major prey items. Major prey species include squids of the genera Architeuthis, Moroteuthis, Gonatopsis, Histioteuthis, and Galiteuthis), as well as fishes like lumpsuckers and redfishes. Like all odontocetes, they seize individual prey items. In some areas, sperm whales take fish from longlines.
Threats and Status
Gosho, M.E., D.W. Rice and J.M. Breiwick. 1984. The sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus. Marine Fisheries Review 46:54-64.
Perry, S.L., D.P. Demaster and G.K. Silber. 1999. The status of endangered whales. Marine Fisheries Review 61(1):1-74 pp.
Reeves, R.R. and H. Whitehead. 1997. Status of the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, in Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 111:293-307.
Rice, D.W. 1989. Sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus Linneaus, 1758. pp. 177-234 in S.H. Ridgway and R. Harrison, eds. Handbook of marine mammals, Vol. 4: River dolphins and the larger toothed whales. Academic Press.
Whitehead, H. 2002. Sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus. pp. 1165-1172 in W.F. Perrin, B. Würsig and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds. Encyclopedia of marine mammals. Academic Press.
Whitehead, H. and L. Weilgart. 2000. Ther sperm whale Social females and roving males. pp. 154-172 in J. Mann, R. C. Connor, P. Tyack, and H. Whitehead, eds. Cetacean societies field studies of dolphins and whales. University of Chicago Press.
Status - ESA, U.S. FWS
| E (Wherever found)|
Status - Red List, IUCN
| EN (Mediterranean)|
|Year||1782 - 2023|
|Latitude||-67.76 - 80.77|
|Longitude||-179.77 - 233.93|
|See metadata in static HTML|