Skip to main content
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, North American Mammals

  Cetacea · Physeteridae · Physeter macrocephalus

Search the Archive
 • Species Name
 • Family Tree
 • Conservaton Status
 • Skulls
 • Bones and Teeth
Field Guide
 • Map Search
   Including search by
     • Location
     • Ecoregion
     • Species
     • National Park
 • About Maps
Teacher Resources
About the Site
Smithsonian Institution
Copyright Notice
Privacy Notice

* PDF reader
available here

(opens in a new window)

Physeter macrocephalus

Sperm Whale

Order: Cetacea
Family: Physeteridae

Image of Physeter macrocephalus
Physeter macrocephalus - male in center, female on right; lower right, spray pattern
Click to enlarge this image. (60 kb)

Conservation Status: Vulnerable.

Sperm whales can dive deeper than 1.6 km and stay under for 90 minutes, although shorter, shallower dives are more usual. They eat squid and octopus, which are sucked into the mouth whole. The whale's head is huge. In addition to containing a very large brain, it houses the wax-filled spermaceti organ. Scientists are still trying to learn what this organ does. It might help absorb excess nitrogen during dives, or help buoyancy. A third possibility is that it helps in communication. Sperm whales make intense clicking sounds - presumably to communicate - and the spermaceti organ might help the sounds resonate. Sperm whales are found in breeding schools and bachelor schools. Breeding schools consist of about 20-40 mature females and juveniles of both sexes, accompanied by one or more mature males. Up to 50 males are found in bachelor groups. Females are sexually mature at 7-13 years, and males at 18-21 years. Pregnancy lasts 14 or 15 months, and females calve only every 3-6 years. So large, so slow to reproduce, and once heavily hunted for their spermaceti, blubber, and ambergris, which forms in the intestines and was used in the perfume industry, sperm whales are now vulnerable. Since 1986, there has been a moratorium on hunting them.

Also known as:


Sexual Dimorphism:

Males may be twice as large as females.


Range: 11.0-18.3 m males; 8.3-12.5 m females


Range: 11,000-57,000 kg males; 6,800-24,000 kg females


Linnaeus, C., 1758.  Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classis, ordines, genera, species cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. 1:76.Tenth Edition, Vol. 1. Laurentii Salvii, Stockholm, 824 pp.


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

Distribution of Physeter macrocephalus

Image of Physeter macrocephalus
Click to enlarge this image. (401kb)

end of text