sperm whale

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sperm whale,

largest of the toothed whaleswhale,
aquatic mammal of the order Cetacea, found in all oceans of the world. Members of this order vary greatly in size and include the largest animals that have ever lived. Cetaceans never leave the water, even to give birth.
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, Physeter catodon, found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is also called cachalot. Male sperm whales may grow to more than 70 ft (21 m) long and females to 30 ft (9 m). Most are dark blue-black all over; a few have white undersides. The large squarish head accounts for one third of the total length. The flippers are small and rounded, and there is a row of low humps toward the rear of the body; there is no dorsal fin. The sperm whale has a single nostril on the left side of its head, and the characteristic spout emerges diagonally. The lower jaw has a row of 20 to 30 teeth on either side; the toothless upper jaw has horny sheaths to receive the lower teeth.

Sperm whales travel long distances, following the migrations of their prey. The adult females and the calves usually confine their movements to the latitudes between 40°N and 40°S of the equator. The range of adult males extends N to the Bering Sea and S to Antarctica; they join the females and young in the tropics during the breeding season. There are fewer males than females, and the animals are polygamous. The single calf, born after a gestation period of 12 months, is 12 to 14 ft (3.6–4.2 m) long at birth. Sperm whales feed chiefly on squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. Sperm whales are among the most aggressive of whales; they battle 30-ft (9-m) giant squid to the death and have been known, when attacked, to sink a rowboat full of whalers. They are thought to live 80 to 100 years.

A gray, cheeselike substance called ambergrisambergris
, waxlike substance originating as a morbid concretion in the intestine of the sperm whale. Lighter than water, it is found floating on tropical seas or cast up on the shore in yellow, gray, black, or variegated masses, usually a few ounces in weight, though pieces
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, valuable as a perfume fixative, forms in the whale's intestine around the irritating, undigested beaks of squids. It is often expelled by vomiting and floats in chunks on the water. The head of the sperm whale may contain up to a ton of fine oil, known as sperm oilsperm oil,
liquid wax obtained from the sperm whale, or cachalot, and related marine mammals. It flows readily, is clear, and varies in color from pale yellow to brownish yellow. Chemically it is not a true oil.
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, and a wax called spermacetispermaceti
, solid waxy substance, white, odorless, and tasteless, separated from the oils obtained from the sperm whale (see sperm oil) and other marine mammals. A mixture of esters of fatty acids, it is composed chiefly of cetyl palmitate.
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. Sperm whalingwhaling,
the hunting of whales for the oil that can be rendered from their flesh, for meat, and for baleen (whalebone). Historically, whale oil was economically the most important. Early Whaling

Whaling for subsistence dates to prehistoric times.
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 was the foundation of the economic expansion of New England in the 18th cent. The industries founded on ambergris, sperm oil, and spermaceti resulted in the slaughter of sperm whales almost to extinction. With the decline in and then the moratorium on the hunting of this species, sperm whales have increased in numbers.

The pygmy sperm whale, Kogia breviceps, of the same family, is similar to the cachalot in range and feeding habits. It is 9 to 11 ft (2.7–3.4 m) long, bluish gray above shading to a dull white below, with a sickle-shaped dorsal fin. The largely similar dwarf sperm whale, K. sima, is 7 to 9 ft (2.1–2.7 m) long and has a more prominent dorsal fin. Because of the similarity in appearance and habit between the pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, the latter was not identified as a separate species until 1966.

Sperm whales are classified in the phylum ChordataChordata
, phylum of animals having a notochord, or dorsal stiffening rod, as the chief internal skeletal support at some stage of their development. Most chordates are vertebrates (animals with backbones), but the phylum also includes some small marine invertebrate animals.
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, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Cetacea, family Physeteridae.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sperm Whale


(Physeter catodon), an aquatic mammal of the suborder Odontoceti.

The length of the male sperm whale reaches 20 m; it may weigh as much as 70 tons. The females are as long as 15 m and weigh up to 30 tons. The head is very large (as much as one-third the length of the body), massive, and blunt in the front. The left nostril opens at the end of the snout in the left corner of the head; the right nostril ends blindly. In the frontal part of the head there is a saccular enlargement of the right nasal passage—the air sac, an adaptation to prolonged stays under water. An enormous fatty cushion of spermaceti (to 6 m) lies in the bed formed by the maxillary bones and determines the shape and size of the head. The mouth is located below this area, a considerable distance back from the tip of the snout. There are 18-30 pairs of teeth on the long and narrow lower jaw. Upper teeth are absent. The flippers are broad and blunt; the dorsal fin takes the form of an elongated hump. The skin on the sides of the body and back is usually wrinkled. The color of the whale varies from brown to dark chestnut. The males are found in all oceans and open seas except in the arctic; the females, only in the warm zone between 40° S lat. and 40° N lat.

The sperm whale feeds on cephalopods and deepwater fish, descending as far as 1.2 km. It can stay under water as long as 1.5 hours, facilitated by the high myoglobin content of the muscles and the decreased sensitivity of the respiratory center to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood. The sperm whale is polygamous, 10-20 females being escorted by a single male. Sexual maturity is attained at five years. The life span may be as much as 50 years. The sperm whale is a most important object of commerce, yielding 9-10 tons of fat, as much as 6 tons of spermaceti, and ambergris. The sperm whale population is decreasing (no more than 300, 000 remain).


Tomilin, A. G. Kitoobraznye. Moscow, 1957 (Zveri SSSR i prilezhashchikh stran, vol. 9).
Tomilin, A. G. Kitoobraznye fauny morei SSSR. Moscow, 1962.
Zhizn’zhivotnykh, vol. 6. Moscow, 1971.
Berzin, A. A. Kashalot.Moscow, 1971. (Bibliography.)
Iablokov, A. V., V. M. Bel’kovich, and V. I. Borisov. Kity i delfiny. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

sperm whale

[′spərm ‚wāl]
(vertebrate zoology)
Physeter catadon. An aggressive toothed whale belonging to the group Odontoceti of the order Cetacea; it produces ambergris and contains a mixture of spermaceti and oil in a cavity of the nasal passage.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

sperm whale

a large toothed whale, Physeter catodon, having a square-shaped head and hunted for sperm oil, spermaceti, and ambergris: family Physeteridae
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005