Pygmy Right Whale

Common Name: Pygmy Right Whale

Class: Mammalia

Order: Cetacea

Family: Balaenidae

Genus: Capera

Species: Caperea marginata

 

Taxonomy/Description

Pygmy right 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 pygmy right is the smallest member of the right whale family, Balaenidae.  Other members of this family include the bowhead whale and right whale.  Whalers called these whale species the "right" whales to hunt because they did not sink when killed.  The pygmy right whale's scientific name is Caperea marginata.  Its generic name, Caperea, means "wrinkled".  This refers to the tympanic bone in the skull.  The pygmy right whale's specific name, marginata, means "edge", referring to the dark edges along the whale's baleen plates. 

Some cetacean taxonomists have placed the pygmy right whale in a separate family, Neobalaenidae, from the bowhead whale and black right whale.  This is because the pygmy right whale has a variety of unique characteristics.  For example, the pygmy right whale has seventeen large, broad ribs extending two-thirds of its body length.  This is more ribs than any other cetacean species.  Their baleen plates are also thicker and more flexible than other baleen whales.  The pygmy right whale exhibits characteristics of both right whales and rorquals.  A heavily arched mouth is similar to the mouths of bowhead whales and black right whales.  The small falcate dorsal fin and throat grooves are reminiscent of rorquals.  The dorsal fin is very similar to the minke whale's fin.  This has resulted in the misidentification of pygmy right whales as minke whales.   The identifying characteristic of the pygmy right whale are the chevron shaped lines on each side of the whale's head.  Pygmy right whales grow to about 20ft in length and five tons in weight.  Female pygmy right whales are slightly larger than males of the same age.

Habitat/Diet

Pygmy right whales live in the temperate waters of the southern hemisphere.  Researchers have observed this species off the coast of Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, South Africa and the Falkland Islands.  Pygmy right whales forage on copepods and krill.  The whale's 420-460 baleen plates strain the ocean water for these tiny prey animals.  These 27 inch plates are composed of keratin, the same substance of fingernails and hair.  The ends of baleen are brush-like, preventing the prey from escaping.  The krill and copepods remain inside, and are consequently swallowed.

Behavior/Reproduction

Pygmy right whales are a rare and mysterious whale species.  No more than a few hundred have actually been observed in the wild, with only a couple dozen specimens having been studied by scientists.  Pygmy right whales usually live alone or in pairs.  They do not engage in acrobatic displays like other whale species, rarely showing even their flukes.  They swim in a very interesting manner, undulating their entire body, not just their tail and flukes to thrust through the water.  Little is known about their reproductive habits.  Some evidence indicates that pygmy right whales may move to coastal waters in the spring and summer.

Conservation

Due to their extreme rarity, pygmy right whales were not commercially hunted by Europeans.  It also appear that aboriginal whalers did not kill them.  The global population is unknown.  However, it may be assumed ocean pollution affects this whale's natural habitat and health.

 

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