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Home -> Kingdom Animalia -> Phylum Chordata -> Subphylum Vertebrata -> Class Mammalia -> Order Cetacea -> Suborder Mysticeti -> Family Balaenopteridae -> Species Balaenoptera musculus

Balaenoptera musculus
blue whale

2009/04/05 11:30:56.148 GMT-4

By Tanya Dewey

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Suborder: Mysticeti
Family: Balaenopteridae
Genus: Balaenoptera
Species: Balaenoptera musculus

Geographic Range

Blue whales are found in all oceans of the world, from the tropics to the drift ice of polar waters. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Biogeographic Regions:
arctic ocean (native ); indian ocean (native ); atlantic ocean (native ); pacific ocean (native ).


Blue whales live in the open ocean. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

These animals are found in the following types of habitat:
temperate ; tropical ; polar ; saltwater or marine .

Aquatic Biomes:
pelagic .

Physical Description

190000 kg (high); avg. 190000 kg
(418000 lbs; avg. 418000 lbs)

33.50 m (high); avg. 26 m
(109.88 ft; avg. 85.28 ft)

Blue whales are slate to grayish blue and mottled with lighter spots, particularly on the back and shoulders. The undersides often become covered with microorganisms, giving the belly a yellowish tinge. Because of this blue whales are sometimes called "sulphurbottoms". The dorsal fin is short, only about 35 cm. The upper jaw is the widest in the genus, and the rostrum is the bluntest. There are 50-90 throat grooves that extend from the chin to just beyond the navel.

Blue whales are the largest animals ever to exist on earth. Average head-body length in adult males is 25 m; in females it is 27 m. The longest confirmed specimen was 33.5 m in length and the heaviest was 190,000 kg. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Some key physical features:
endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry .

Sexual dimorphism: female larger.


Breeding interval
Females give birth to young every 2 to 3 years.

Breeding season
Breeding occurs during the winter months.

Number of offspring
1 (average)

Gestation period
11 to 12 months; avg. 11.50 months

Birth Mass
2000000 g (average)
(70400 oz)
[External Source: AnAge]

Time to weaning
7 to 8 months; avg. 7.50 months

Time to independence
2 to 3 years

Age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
5 years (average)

Age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
5 years (average)

Very little is known about mating in the large whale species.

The gestation period is eleven or twelve months long, unusually short for an animal its size. Young are born in warm, low latitude waters in the winter months after the adults return from their high latitude feeding grounds. At birth the young are 7-8 m long. While nursing, blue whales can gain up to 90 kg in body weight a day. Young are weaned after seven or eight months, usually after attaining a length of 16 m. Sexual maturity occurs at about 5 years old in females, or at about 21 to 23 m in length and young are produced every 2 or 3 years after that. Twins are rare but do occur occassionally. Males mature at 20 to 21 m, just under 5 years old. Longevity has been estimated to be as high as 110 years. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Key reproductive features:
iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous .

Blue whale young are cared for extensively by their mother. Male blue whales do not contribute parental care. (Nowak, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Parental investment:
no parental involvement; precocial ; pre-fertilization (protecting: female); pre-hatching/birth (provisioning: female, protecting: female); pre-weaning/fledging (provisioning: female, protecting: female); pre-independence (provisioning: female, protecting: female).


Average lifespan (wild)
85 years

Typical lifespan (wild)

Average lifespan (captivity)
110 years
[External Source: AnAge]

Longevity in blue whales, and other large cetaceans, is estimated by counting the number of ovarian scars in sexually mature females, changes in the coloration of eye lenses, and counting the number of ridges on baleen plates. Age estimates of blue whales suggest a lifespan of 80 to 90 years. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)


Most populations of blue whales are migratory, though some animals do not migrate. Migrators typically spend the winter in low latitude waters, move towards the poles during the spring, feed in high latitude waters during the summer and head back toward the equator during the fall. There are northern and southern ocean populations that remain distinct. Normal swimming speed is around 22 km/hr, but blue whales can make 48 km/hr if alarmed. Feeding is usually at depths less than 100 m; harpooned animals have dived as deep as 500 m. Normal dives last from 10-20 minutes and are separated by 8-15 blows. The spout of blue whales can reach almost 10 m. Aggregations of up to 60 animals have been reported, but solitary animals or pods of two or three are more common. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Key behaviors:
natatorial ; motile ; migratory ; solitary .

Communication and Perception

Blue whales have the lowest voices of any whale, vocalizing as low as 14 Hz at volumes up to 200 decibels. Sounds at this frequency and intensity can travel for thousands of miles in the deep ocean. These sounds may be used to communicate with other whales. Low frequency pulses may be used to navigate by creating a sonic image of distant oceanic features.

Little is known about intraspecific communication in these whales. Vision and smell are limited, but hearing is sensitive. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Communicates with:
acoustic .

Perception channels:
tactile ; acoustic ; chemical .

Food Habits

The diet of blue whales is principally krill. In southern waters the main species eaten is Euphausia superba, a small (less than 7 cm) planktonic crustacean that is tremendously abundant. In northern waters the main species are Thysanoessa inermis and Meganyctiphanes norvegica, though other planktonic species and small fish are also eaten. Adult whales can ingest 3 to 4 tons of krill per day.

Primary Diet:
carnivore (eats non-insect arthropods).

Animal Foods:
aquatic crustaceans; zooplankton .

Foraging Behaviors:
filter-feeding .


Blue whales, by virtue of their extreme size, have virtually no natural predators. They were hunted by humans extensively in the 20th century, almost to extinction. Blue whale calves may be vulnerable to predation by orcas and large sharks.

Ecosystem Roles

Blue whales, and other large baleen whales, are important predators of krill.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no negative impacts of blue whales on humans.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Blue whales were formerly heavily hunted for blubber and oil. Because of the immensity of blue whales, only sperm whales approached them in economic importance. A single blue whale could yield 70 or 80 barrels of oil. Baleen was also an important whale product, valued for its plastic like properties that were applied in a wide variety of products.

Blue whales, and other large whales, have important ecotourism value.

Ways that people benefit from these animals:
body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism .

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List: [link]:

US Federal List: [link]:

CITES: [link]:
Appendix I.

Blue whales were not initially among the most heavily hunted species due to their size, speed, and remote habitat. Technological advances from 1860-1920, however, allowed whalers to pursue the species. The estimated total kill of blue whales in the 20th century was 350,000 animals. By the 1960's, blue whales were on the edge of extinction. Despite the opposition of the whaling industry, blue whales gained protection after the 1965/66 whaling season. Estimates of the remaining population range from 2,000 to 6,000 individuals and it is not yet clear that the blue whale will escape extinction. Southern hemisphere populations have been surveyed extensively and are estimated at 400 to 1,400 animals. Northern hemisphere populations are estimated at about 5,000 individuals but the scientific rigor of these surveys has been criticized.


Tanya Dewey (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

David L. Fox (author), University of Michigan.


Nowak, R. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tinker, S. 1988. Whales of the World. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

2009/04/05 11:30:58.069 GMT-4

To cite this page: Dewey, T. and D. Fox. 2002. "Balaenoptera musculus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 05, 2009 at

Disclaimer: The Animal Diversity Web is an educational resource written largely by and for college students. ADW doesn't cover all species in the world, nor does it include all the latest scientific information about organisms we describe. Though we edit our accounts for accuracy, we cannot guarantee all information in those accounts. While ADW staff and contributors provide references to books and websites that we believe are reputable, we cannot necessarily endorse the contents of references beyond our control.

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