Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

attached to the palate and the apex hanging downwards. The outer edge of the blade is hard and smooth, but the inner edge and apex fray out into long bristly fibres, so that the roof of the whale’s mouth looks as if covered with hair, as described by Aristotle. At the inner edge of each principal blade are two or three much smaller or subsidiary blades. The principal blades are longest near the middle of the series, and gradually diminish towards the front and back of the mouth. The horny plates grow from a fibrous and vascular matrix, which covers the palatal surface of the maxillae, and sends out plate-like processes, one of which penetrates the base of each blade. Moreover, the free edges of these processes are covered with long vascular thread-like papillae, one of which forms the central axis of each of the hair-like fibres mainly composing the blade. A transverse section of fresh whalebone shows that it is made up of numbers of these soft vascular papillae, circular in outline, and surrounded by concentrically arranged epidermic cells, the whole bound together by other epidermic cells, that constitute the smooth (so-called “enamel”) surface of the blade, which, disintegrating at the free edge, allows the individual fibres to become loose and assume a hair-like appearance.

Whalebone really consists of modified papillae of the mucous membrane of the mouth, with an excessive and horny epithelial development. The blades are supported and bound together for a certain distance from their base, by a mass of less hardened epithelium, secreted by the surface of the palatal membrane or matrix of the whalebone in the intervals of the plate-like processes. This is the “gum” of the whalers. Whalebone varies much in colour in different species; in some it is almost jet black, in others slate colour, horn colour, yellow, or even creamy-white. In some descriptions the blades are variegated with longitudinal stripes of different hues. It differs also greatly in other respects, being short, thick, coarse, and stiff in some cases, and greatly elongated and highly elastic in those species in which it has attained its fullest development. Its function is to strain the water from the small marine molluscs, crustaceans, or fish upon which the whales subsist. In feeding, whales fill the immense mouth with water containing shoals of these small creatures, and then, on closing the jaws and raising the tongue, so as to diminish the cavity of the mouth, the water streams out through the narrow intervals between the hairy fringe of the whalebone blades, and escapes through the lips, leaving the living prey to be swallowed.

Although sometimes divided into two families, Balaenidae and Balaenopteridae, whalebone-whales are best included in a single family group under the former name. The typical members of this family are the so-called right-whales, forming the genus Balaena, in which there are no folds on the throat and chest, and no back-fin; while the cervical vertebrae are fused into a single mass. The flippers are short and broad, with five digits; the head is very large and the whalebone very long and narrow, highly elastic and black; while the scapula is high, with a distinct coracoid and coronoid process. This genus contains the well-known Greenland right-whale (B. mysticetus) of the Arctic seas, the whalebone and oil of which are so much valued in commerce, and also other whales, distinguished by having the head somewhat smaller in proportion to the body, with shorter whalebone and a larger number of vertebrae. These inhabit the temperate seas of both northern and southern hemispheres, and have been divided into species in accordance with their geographical distribution, such as B. biscayensis of the North Atlantic, B. japonica of the North Pacific, B. australis of the South Atlantic, and B. antipodarum and novae-zelandiae of the South Pacific; but the differences between them are so small that they may probably be regarded as races of a single species, the black whale (B. australis). On the head these whales carry a peculiar structure which is known to whalers as the “bonnet.” This is a large horny excrescence, worn into hollows like a much-denuded piece of limestone rock, growing probably in the neighbourhood of the blow-hole. More than one theory has been suggested to account for its presence. One suggestion is that it indicates the descent of whales from rhinoceros-like mammals; another that this species of whale is in the habit of rubbing against rocks in order to free itself from barnacles, and thus produces a kind of corn—although why on the nose alone is not stated. Dr W. G. Ridewood, however, considers that the structure is due to the fact that the horny layers which are produced all over the skin are not shed on this particular spot.

The pigmy whale (Neobalaena marginata) represents a genus agreeing with the right-whales in the absence of throat-flutings, and with the rorquals in the presence of a dorsal fin. The cervical vertebrae are united, and there are only 43 vertebrae altogether. The flippers are small, narrow, and with only four digits. The ribs remarkably expanded and flattened; the scapula low and broad, with completely developed acromion and coracoid processes. The whalebone is long, slender, elastic and white. The species which inhabits the South American, Australian and New Zealand seas is the smallest of the whalebone-whales, being not more than 20 ft. in length.

In contrast to the preceding is the great grey whale (Rachianectes glaucus) of the North Pacific, which combines the relatively small head, elongated shape, and narrow flippers of the fin-whales, with the smooth throat and absence of a back-fin distinctive of the right-whales. The whalebone is shorter and coarser than in any other species. In the skeleton the cervical vertebrae are free, and the first two ribs on each side expanded and united to form a large bony shield. In the humpback-whale (Megaptera longimana or boops) the head is of moderate size, the whalebone-plates are short and wide, and the cervical vertebrae free. The skin of the throat is fluted so as to form an expansible pouch; there is a low back-fin; and the flippers, which have four digits each, are extremely long, equalling about one-fourth the total length of the animal. The acromion and coracoid processes of the scapula are rudimentary. See Humpback-Whale.

The right-whales are built for cruising slowly about in search of the shoals of small floating invertebrates which form their food, and are consequently broad in beam, with a float-shaped body and immovable neck. The humpback is of somewhat similar build, but with a smaller head, and probably attains considerable speed owing to the length of its flippers. The finners, or rorquals (Balaenoptera), which prey largely on fish, are built entirely for speed, and are the ocean greyhounds of the group. Their bodies are consequently long and attenuated, and their necks are partially mobile; while they are furnished with capacious pouches for storing their food. They chiefly differ from the humpback by the smaller head, long and slender build, small, narrow, and pointed flippers, each containing four digits, and the large acromion and coracoid processes to the low and broad scapula. Rorquals are found in almost every sea. Among them are the most gigantic of all animals, B. sibbaldi, which attains the length of 80 ft., and the small B. rostrata, which does not exceed 30. There are certainly four distinct modifications of this genus, represented by the two just mentioned, and by B. musculus and B. borealis, all inhabitants of British seas, but the question whether almost identical forms found in the Indian, Southern and Pacific Oceans are to be regarded as specifically identical or as distinct awaits future researches, although some of these have already received distinct names. See Rorqual.

In the report on the zoology of the “Discovery” expedition, published in 1907 by the British Museum, E. A. Wilson describes a whale frequenting the fringe of the Antarctic ice which indicates a new generic type. Mainly black in colour, these whales measure about 20 or 30 ft. in length, and have a tall dorsal fin like that of a killer.

Toothed Whales.—-The second suborder is represented by the toothed whales, or Odontoceti, in which there is no whalebone, and teeth, generally numerous, though sometimes reduced to a single pair, and occasionally wanting, are normally developed. Unlike that of the whalebone-whales, the upper surface of the skull is more or less unsymmetrical. The nasal bones are in the form of nodules or flattened plates, applied closely to the frontals, and not forming any part of the roof to the nasal passage, which is directed upwards and backwards. The olfactory organ is rudimentary or absent. Hinder end of the maxilla expanded and covering the greater part of the orbital plate of the frontal bone. Lacrymal bone either inseparable from the jugal, or, if distinct, large, and forming part of the roof of the orbit. Tympanic bone not welded with the periotic, which is usually only attached to the rest of the skull by ligament. Two halves of the lower jaw nearly straight, expanded in height posteriorly, with a wide funnel-shaped aperture to the dental canal, and coming in contact in front by a flat surface of variable length, but constituting a symphysis. Several of the anterior ribs with well-developed capitular processes, which articulate with the bodies of the vertebrae. Sternum almost always composed of several pieces, placed one behind the other, with which several pairs of ribs are connected by well-developed cartilaginous or ossified sternal ribs. External respiratory aperture single, the two nostrils uniting before they reach the surface, usually in the form of a transverse sub-crescentic valvular aperture, situated on the top of the head. Flippers with five digits, though the first and fifth are usually little developed. No caecum, except in Platanista.

The first family, Physeteridae, is typified by the sperm-whale, and characterized by the absence of functional teeth in the upper jaw; the lower teeth being various, and often much reduced in number. Bones of the skull raised so as to form an elevated prominence or crest behind the nostrils. Pterygoid bones thick, produced backwards, meeting in the middle line, and not involuted to form the outer wall of the post-palatine air-sinuses, but simply hollowed on their outer side. Transverse processes of the arches of the dorsal vertebrae, to which the tubercles of the ribs are attached, ceasing abruptly near the end of the series, and replaced by processes on the body at a lower level, and serially homologous anteriorly with the heads of the ribs, and posteriorly with the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae. Costal cartilages not ossified.

The first group, or Physeterinae, includes the sperm-whale itself and is characterized by the presence of a full series of lower teeth, which are set in a groove in place of sockets, the groove being imperfectly divided by partial septa, and the teeth held in place by the strong, fibrous gum. No distinct lacrymal bone. Skull strikingly asymmetrical in the region of the nasal apertures, in consequence of the left opening greatly exceeding the right in size.

In the sperm-whale (Physeter macrocephalus) the upper teeth are apparently of uncertain number, rudimentary and functionless, being embedded in the gum. Lower jaw with from 20 to 25 teeth on each side, stout, conical, recurved and pointed at the apex