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What Do You See?
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Our expert sees...

...the mouth of a baby gray whale!

Did you notice?

Size

  • The head is almost ALL mouth!
  • It looks upside down because the bottom part is bigger than the top.

    Fact: The mouth of a newborn gray whale makes up about 90% of the length of its head and about 15% of the length of its entire body! (Imagine how YOU would look if your mouth were designed the same size as a baby whale's!)

Shape

  • Mouth has an upper and a lower jaw. It looks like a beak.

    Fact: Whales need to be streamlined to move through the water easily. Baleen whales (gray whales are baleen whales) need large mouths to hold the large volumes of mud and water they take in in order to catch lots of the tiny crustaceans, which they eat for food.

  • No protruding lips; instead, the mouth opening is rounded inward. No teeth, but look closely to see edges of baleen.

    Fact: When the calf grows up and is weaned it will get food by filtering large volumes of mud and water through short yellow-white colored baleen plates that hang from its upper jaw. Baleen acts like a large comb, catching the tiny crustaceans in the hair-like fringe as water and mud are pushed out of the mouth. The young whale will use its huge tongue to lick the food off its baleen.
     

Color and Texture

  • Skin is shiny.

    Fact: The skin feels like wet rubber, which makes a good waterproof jacket for the baby! The skin easily stretches as the baby gains a layer of blubber under it to keep warm.
  • Skin is "pickled," or dented and dimpled.

    Fact: Hairs grow from those dents! The upper jaw has a number of regularly spaced indents containing tactile hair follicles, each indent with a coarse white hair about a half inch to an inch long. On one calf, scientists* counted 56 of these hairs on each side of the upper jaw. (Whales are mammals, and mammals always have some hair.)

  • Skin has white spots, and darker and lighter shades of gray.

    Fact: When born, gray whales are a deep slate gray color with many white to light gray patches and flecks. Newborns are quickly infested with whale lice, small crustaceans that live in the creases of their skin and feed on dead skin. Many species of whales and dolphins naturally slough visible quantities of skin that can appear light-colored, ragged, and torn. As the calf grows, its skin will also become deeply embedded with host-specific sessile barnacles. These barnacles and whale lice give older gray whales their mottled appearance.
  • Skin has some scars or torn-looking places.

    Fact: Some scarring or skin sloughing may happen when calves bump against the sandy bottom of the lagoons or rub against the barnacles on their mothers. 

Did you wonder?

  • How does the baby nurse with a mouth like that?

    Fact: A whale baby does not suck, but opens its mouth as the mother pumps milk into it. Author **John Heyning describes it: "Calves nurse just as human babies do. Nursing in the ocean poses some challenges. It is not easy to drink under water, and cetacean mothers often nurse their calves while swimming. To overcome such difficulties, cetaceans have evolved special muscles around the mammary glands that squirt milk quickly into the calf's mouth, which has a special tongue designed not to spill!"

*Robert L. Eberhardt and Kenneth S. Norris. "Observations of newborn Pacific gray whales on Mexican calving grounds." Journal of Mammalogy (Vol. 45). Pages 88-95.)

**Heyning, John E. Masters of the Ocean Realm: Whales, Dolphins, & Porpoises. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995).)


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