Gray Whale

Common Name: Gray Whale

Class: Mammalia

Order: Cetacea

Suborder: Mysticeti

Family: Eschrichtidae

Genus: Eschrichtius

Species: Eschrichtius robustus

 

Taxonomy/Description

Gray whales belong to the Mammalian Order Cetacea, in the suborder Mysticeti.  All baleen whales belong to the suborder Mysticeti, which is Latin for "mustached whales".  The gray whale is the only member of the family Eschrichtidae. This family is named in honor of Daniel Fredrik Eshricht (1798-1863), a Dutch zoologist responsible for writing several important papers on cetaceans.  The Gray Whale's scientific name is Eschrichtus robustus.  The genus name honors Daniel Fredrik Eschricht, and the specific name is Latin for "stout or robust".

Gray whales are recognizable by their mottled gray skin that tends to have many barnacles growing on it.  In fact, there are three species of barnacles that are found exclusively on gray whales!  Males of this species can grow to 60 feet in length.  At one museum display, it took eight of us lined head to toe to match a life-sized outline!

Habitat/Diet

These whales are found along the Pacific coast of North America, ranging from their breeding grounds near Baja California in Mexico to their principle feeding areas in the vicinity of Alaska and the Bering Sea.  The gray whale is a type of baleen whale and it feeds specifically on small worms and amphipods found in the loose mud on the floor of the ocean in coastal waters.

Behavior/Reproduction

Gray whales have the longest migration of any mammal, traveling approximately 11,000 miles round-trip each year.  They breed and give birth in the warm waters of Baja California, then travel along the western coast of North America to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea.  They travel at a constant speed of five miles per hour, unless frightened, which causes swimming speed to increase to 15 miles per hour.  Gray whales have two predators.  Humans once hunted this whale, and orcas continue to hunt this whale.  Orcas will attack gray whale calves, eating the tongue of the gray whale.

To feed, they dive to the bottom in a shallow area, roll to one side, and scoop up a huge quantity of mud.  Interestingly, gray whales tend to roll to their right side when scooping up mud.  They then spit most of their mouthful back out by forcing the water and fine dirt particles through their baleen plates.  While this goes on, the baleen acts as a filter.  Edible creatures are caught in the comb-like structure.  The whale then licks off the meal it has caught with its tongue.  Gray whales are the only "bottom-feeding" baleen whales.

Conservation

Because of the gray whale's well known migratory route and slow moving speed, whalers once hunted them extensively and brought this species to near extinction.  Fortunately in 1946, the International Whaling Commission afforded a protection that was soon strengthened by the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1971and the United States Endangered Species Act of 1972.  Since then, their numbers have been showing a steady recovery.  In fact, gray whales have recently been removed from the Endangered Species List.  They are considered an environmental success, which is a source of encouragement and inspiration for environmentalists everywhere.

 

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.