~ The Pygmy Right Whale ~

The pygmy right whale, rarely seen at sea, is the smallest and most elusive of the baleen whales. Information about this whale is minimal, since only a few dozen stranded specimens have been examined by scientists and as early as 2012 the species was thought to be extinct by some. Many reported sightings have probably been incorrectly identified minke whales; the small size, dark color, and curved dorsal fin make it almost impossible to tell the two species apart when they are seen at the water's surface.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Although the pygmy right whale is classified with the other right whales, the only feature that all these species have in common is the shape of the mouth. Its upper jaw is arched while the lower jaw is bowed. Its lower jaw extends slightly beyond the upper jaw. Two indistinct grooves are situated lengthwise in the area of the throat which are similar to the throat grooves of the gray whale. This whale has a small head. The blow hole is small and not very noticeable. There are 210-230 baleen plates on each side of the pygmy right whale's upper jaw. These plates are yellowish-white with a dark brown marginal band on the edge. The baleen plates are up to 27 inches long and are said to be more flexible and stronger than those of any other species of baleen whale. On the side of the body, the animal has two distinct stripe-like coloration "chevrons." Pygmy right whales have a unique skeletal structure: there are 17 pairs of broad, flat ribs - more than any other baleen whale - that extend 2/3 of the body length towards the tail. Because of this unusual structure some biologists believe that the pygmy right whale should be classified in a family by itself. Pygmy right whales are dark gray on the dorsal (upper) side of the body which may become increasingly darker as the animal ages. The ventral (underside) of the body is white. A small, curved dorsal fin is located 2/3 of the way back on its body. Its flippers are considerably darker than the rest of the body and are small, narrow, and slightly rounded at the tips. Its flukes are broad and have a slight notch in the center. The length of both males and females averages 20 feet. The largest known female pygmy right whale was recorded at 21 feet. The weight of this whale has been estimated at about 5000 pounds. Males tend to be slightly smaller than females.

FEEDING: Pygmy right whales are believed to feed primarily on copepods, but some diseased specimens have been found with krill in their stomach.

MATING AND BREEDING: Little to no information is available on the reproduction of pygmy right whales. Pregnant females are thought to seek out shallow, sheltered bays to give birth because of pregnant females found stranded in such areas, but this is total speculation because of lack of real evidence.

DISTRIBUTION: Pygmy right whales are found only in the temperate waters of the southern hemisphere. Sightings occur in Tasmania year round and seasonally along the coasts of South Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Falkland Islands, and some areas of Antarctica.

HISTORY: Since only a few stranded animals have been studied, very little is known about the natural history of this species. Pygmy right whales tend to be solitary or to travel in pairs, although small groups of up to 80 animals have been recorded. Pygmy right whales don't exhibit many of the behaviors of other whales such as breaching and spy-hopping or showing their flukes. Underwater this whale has been observed swimming by flexing its entire body in waves of motion from head to tail to move through the water rather than moving just the tail area and flukes as other cetaceans do. They are thought to be powerful swimmers and achieve great speeds in short bursts.

POPULATIONS: Population past and present are not known. Whether there aren't very many of them or whether their habits make them difficult to be seen is a matter of speculation. These whales have never been hunted commercially or by aboriginal hunters. The rarity of sightings gives cause to think that these whales are very low in numbers and possibly very endangered.

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