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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, North American Mammals

  Cetacea · Balaenidae · Balaena mysticetus

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Balaena mysticetus


Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae

Image of Balaena mysticetus
Balaena mysticetus - inset shows spray pattern
Click to enlarge this image. (45 kb)

Conservation Status: Least Concern.

Bowheads live in icy Arctic seas. A smooth back with no dorsal fin, a blowhole placed in a high crown at the top of the head, and a thick layer of blubber for insulation equip them for this environment. They can smash through ice as thick as 60 cm to create breathing holes. Bowheads skim-feed tiny crustaceans. A whale draws a huge amount of water into its mouth, then raises its tongue, which forces the water back out through baleen filters. The tongue then sweeps the trapped food back toward the throat. Bowheads are social animals, and communicate through long-distance vocalizations, some carrying 5-10 km. Males get involved in showy bouts of breaching and fluke-slapping, probably because they are competing with one another for access to females. There are probably fewer than 10,000 bowheads alive today, living in four or five populations. They were hunted to the brink of extinction during the 1800s, and have been slow to recover.

Also known as:

Arctic Right Whale, Greenland Right Whale, Polar Whale, Bowhead Whale


Range: 14-17 m males; 16-18 m females


Range: 7,500-10,000 kg


Linnaeus, C., 1758.  Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classis, ordines, genera, species cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tenth Edition.  Laurentii Salvii, Stockholm, 1:75, 824 pp.


Mammal Species of the World (opens in a new window).

Distribution of Balaena mysticetus

Image of Balaena mysticetus
Click to enlarge this image. (31kb)

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