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All Creatures,

Episode 133: Bowhead Whales, Oldest Living Mammals

January 07, 2020

We return to the Arctic to talk about the oldest living mammals on the planet, the Bowhead Whale. These incredible aquatic mammals can live well over 200 years old and were hunted to near extinction in the early 20th Century. Today, the Bowhead is on the rebound but still needs our attention as the Arctic continues to suffer due to climate change. We discuss all sorts of interesting facts, to include how they determine the whales ages, and how these whales can even benefit humanity.

Bowhead Whale History

The Bowhead Whale belongs to the group of baleen whales. These are large filter feeding cetaceans that make up 15 different species. These include the Blue Whale, Humpback Whale, Right Whale and others. These are actually some of the oldest whales on earth as they evolved over nearly 35 million years ago. The Bowhead Whale is from the family Balaenidae, which also includes the Right Whale. The Bowhead Whale scientific name is Balaena mysticetus.

The Bowhead Whale is an Arctic dwelling mammal. Because of their thick blubber, they were a target of whalers through the centuries. In the 1920s it was estimated there was maybe 3000 Bowhead Whales left. Through careful conservation efforts, those numbers have rebounded to about an estimate of 20,000 whales.

Bowhead Whale Physiology

The most unique aspect of the Bowhead Whale is its age. One estimate of a male Bowhead Whale killed was he was about 211 years old. Found within the thick skin was old stone harpoon points from the 19th century. You can read more about how they age these whales HERE and more detailed scientific paper HERE. 

What makes this discovery so interesting is what we can learn from the aging process in Bowhead Whales. Scientists have been looking at Bowhead Whales to discover their secrets to aging in their genes and also how they can fight off cancer. More can be read HERE.

Bowhead Whales also:

  • Second largest mammal on earth behind the Blue Whale
  • Can be as long as 60 feet (18 m) and weigh up to 200,000 lbs (90,700 kg)
  • Largest mouth of any animal, 8 feet (2.5 m) wide
  • Tongue weights 1 ton
  • Eat up to 2 tons of food per day, mainly zooplankton through filter feeding
  • Eat up to 100 tons of food per year, mainly during the spring and summer months
  • Blubber layer of up to 19 inches (48 cm) thick
  • Reach sexual maturity at 20 years of age

Bowhead Whale Conservation

Currently the IUCN has the Bowhead Whale as Least Concern. However, they are classified in the United States as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Right Whale in the Northern Hemisphere is classified as endangered with around 1,000 whales left.

Conservation Tips on eating local and winter veggies and fruits list HERE

Organization to Support

American Cetacean Society 

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