Sperm Whale: The Big Teeth

spermwhale_INFOG
Art by Dana Rose Salonoy

Download the sperm whale module and the full size minigraphics.

Introduction

  • Scientific name: Physeter macrocephalus
  • Has the largest brain of any known creature both in body to brain ratio and physical size
  • They use sounds to communicate with each other and to search for prey
  • Considered to be vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Distribution

The sperm whale is typically found in the open water and is found all over the world except in the cold waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. They can be found swimming in depths of up to 3 kilometers but they are often found in depths of around 1 kilometer because that is where their favorite food is located, deep-water squid. According to the IUCN, it is estimated that the global population of the sperm whales has at least 100,000 whales during a study conducted in 2002.

Sperm whales are present in all Southeast Asian countries in the Coral Triangle, which are Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines or the CT3. In the Philippines, sperm whales are regularly sighted in Tañon Strait, one of CTI-SEA’s project sites.

Why they are important

Sperm whales help keep the marine ecosystem healthy by regulating the flow of food and helping to maintain a stable marine food chain. They ensure that certain animal species which they prey upon do not overpopulate the ocean. Even their feces play an important role by helping offset carbon in the atmosphere. Nutrients in their “poop” stimulate the growth of phytoplankton which serve as food for a lot of marine creatures including the whale shark. Phytoplanktons use the carbon from the atmosphere resulting in a cleaner and healthier environment for man and animals alike. It is estimated that as much as 400,000 tons of carbon are extracted from the air due to these whales each year.

The death of a whale is also beneficial for the marine environment.  When a whale dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean it provides an incredible amount of nutrients to scavenger communities that live at the bottom of the ocean floor. These are areas that are so deep that sunlight cannot reach them, so the main source of energy and nutrients for these communities would be animal remains that sink to the bottom.

By Gabriel Barathieu (http://www.flickr.com/photos/barathieu/7277953560/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Mother and baby sperm whale” by Gabriel Barathieu (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

Biology

Sperm whales are one of the largest animals in the world and can weigh up to 45 tons and measure up to 60 ft in length – that’s as heavy as a big truck and as long as a bus! They grow to this amazing size by feeding primarily on fish and squid, often consuming 900 kg of food per day.

Sperm whales are a social species and have been noticed to swim together in groups, also known as pods. The whales communicate with other whales using sound and scientists theorize that each region might have its own language because they noticed certain clicking patterns that only exist in certain areas of the world. They also use sound for echolocation which allows the sperm whale to detect where large squid and fish are. They make clicking sounds which goes out towards the open ocean. This sound wave travels until it hits something like a large squid and it bounces back. Sperm whales are able to detect from where the sound bounces back and know where their food is.

They have a slow reproductive rate taking 9 years for a female sperm whale to reach sexual maturity and at least 11 months for her to produce a single baby sperm whale, also known as a calf. This makes their population vulnerable to many threats including overfishing and it can take a long time for a whale population to recover.

Threats

Whaling is one of the primary threats to the sperm whale; it is still practiced in only a few countries such as Japan, Norway, and Iceland. Sperm whales are primarily hunted for their meats and for a substance called spermaceti which is found in the sperm whale’s head. Spermaceti was widely popular before the international ban and was used in candles, lubricants, and cosmetics. Jojoba oil, which is a plant-based oil, is now used as a replacement for spermaceti. Despite a ban from international trade in 1981 and an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986, spermaceti is still used in some cosmetic products around the world.

Noise from ships or drilling for oil disturbs the whale’s ability to communicate and hunt for food. It can be hard for whales to distinguish the sounds made by other whales if loud drilling is occurring. Other species of whales have also been known to get stranded as a result of dynamite fishing as the blast can damage their ability to hear and navigate.

Marine pollution is also a serious threat to whales as toxic substances –  including oil, chemical spills, and human waste – can damage their habitats or directly kill them. Whales can die after swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic bags and  fishing nets.

What can we do?

Do not buy products that use spermaceti. Before you buy a cosmetic product, double check to see if the product uses jojoba oil instead of spermaceti oil.

Do not eat whale meat. Whale meat is still considered a delicacy in a few countries but international trade for whale meat is banned.  The killing of whales will stop if there is no market for its meat and other whale products.

Practice proper solid waste management. Throw away trash in trash cans and other proper areas and do not just throw them on the ground or in the water.

Spread awareness. Tell your friends about the sperm whale’s plight by sharing this article and other articles that show the importance of marine mammals and why we need to protect them.

Laws the protect the sperm whale in the CT3 (Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia)

Quiz

It is beneficial when whales release their waste in the water, this is important to the marine ecosystem because of a system known as the “whale pump.”  What is the whale pump and how does it work?

Answer by commenting on the Facebook post by CTI-Southeast Asia!

Download the Protected Philippine Aquatic Wildlife posters.

Article by Panji Brotoisworo. Art by Dana Rose Salonoy.

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