Bowhead Whale

Common Name: Bowhead Whale

Class: Mammalia

Order: Cetacea

Family: Balaenidae

Genus: Balaena

Species:  Bowhead whale Balaena mysticetus




Bowhead 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 bowhead whale belongs to the right whale family, Balaenidae.  The bowhead whale's scientific name is Balaena mysticetus.  Whalers called these whale species the "right" whales because they were the "right" whales to hunt since they did not sink when killed.  Other members of this family include the pygmy right whale and right whale.  Its generic name, Balaena, means "whale".  The bowhead whale's specific name, mysticetus, means "mustached whale", referring to the whale's baleen plates.  The term "bowhead" refers to the whale's highly curved mouth, which resembles the shape of an archer's bow.  This animal is easily identified by this extremely arched mouth, as well as its lacking dorsal fin and elevated blowhole.  A bowhead whale's head is about one-third its body length, reaching 16 feet in length, 12 feet in height and eight feet in width.  Its tongue weighs about one ton.  The bowhead whale is the largest member of Balaenidae.  Bowhead whales may exceed 60ft in length and 60 tons in weight.  Female bowhead whales are usually larger than males of the same age.


Bowhead whales inhabit the arctic waters of the far north.  Early American whalers called this species the Greenland right whale.  Bowhead whales feed on a variety of planktonic organisms, including copepods, euphausiids, amphipods and krill.  To ingest these surface-dwelling organisms, the bowhead whale strains water at the ocean's surface with its 650-720 baleen plates.  The bowhead's baleen is the largest of any whale species, reaching 14 feet in length and 12 inches in width.  These 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 prey remains inside, and is consequently swallowed.


Bowhead whales usually live alone or in small groups of no more than six animals.  They migrate annually, following the receding arctic ice flows.  Beluga whales occasionally migrate with the bowheads.  Calving occurs during the spring and summer.  Gestation is about 13-14 months.  Newborn calves range between 11-18ft in length.  Young bowhead whales nurse for 9-12 months.  The natural predators of bowhead whales are humans and killer whales.  Bowheads are slow swimmers, and when alarmed move beneath the ice to keep safe.

The recent discovery of stone harpoon tips in the blubber of some bowhead whales has lead researchers to re-evaluate the lifespan of bowheads.  Indigenous peoples of the Arctic stopped using stone tipped harpoons after the arrival of metal harpoon tips.  The Arctic peoples obtained metal harpoons from Europeans whalers during the 18th century.  This would indicate that some bowhead whales have exceeded one hundred years in age!  Further chemical analysis of bowhead whale structures has lead some scientists to affirm that a single male bowhead lived to 211 years.  Such a great age makes bowhead whales the longest living mammal species.


The bowhead whale has been protected since 1946, due to overhunting which drove it near extinction.  The original bowhead whale population was estimated to be between 20,000 and 40,000.  The population of the bowhead whales in the western Arctic is currently estimated to exceed 7,500, while the population living in the eastern Arctic numbers only a few hundred.


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