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Northern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis)

Northern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis)

All text on this page is copyright protected: © 2014 Kelvin Aitken.
All rights reserved. Students may use this information for personal research only. Not for commercial use.

Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae
Genus: Eubalaena
Species: glacialis
Taxonomic name: Eubalaena glacialis
Other Common Names: North Atlantic Right Whale, Right Whale.

Northern Right Whales are part of the Balaenidae family of Right Whales.

Mature females are larger than males growing to 100 tonnes and 17 meters. Calves are born at 4.5-6 meters in their temperate winter breeding grounds. Females generally breed once every three years.

Northern Right Whales were once found from the Azores in the eastern Atlantic north and across to the eastern Atlantic from Canada south to Florida. Now the main population is found in the Canadian and eastern USA coast. There may be a small population still in the north east Pacific but sightngs are very rare.

A second species or sub species is found off the coasts of north west Pacific countries from Japan to Russia. This Right Whale has recently been descirbed as the Japanese Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica) based on minor differences and DNA comparisons.

In essence all Right Whale species are identical in appearance to the casual observer with species identification being based on geographic location.

Prior to their complete protection in 1937 Southern Rights were hunted close to extinction due to their being the “right” whale to hunt; slow moving, shore hugging whales which floated when dead. Cessation in hunting has seen their numbers increase over the years in the southern hemisphere but the northern population struggles to remain vialble. The Norhtern Right Whale may become extinct very soon.
Current estimations of population size vary from 200-300.

The most distinctive feature of Northern Right Whales is their raised patches of skin called callosities on the head (which is about 1/3 of the body length), snout and lips. These rough, pale patches may be any colour from white to yellow or pale pink and contrast starkly with the overall black to dark grey colouration of the body. The surface of the callosities is very rough and jagged due to the attentions of whale lice which feed on and sculpt the thick skin mounds into pads of course sandpaper. These callosities are easily spotted when the whale comes to the surface to breath especially since they also often raise their chin or entire head during social contacts with other whales.

Some speculate that Northern Right Whales can be distinguished from the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) by a larger amount of callosity material on the head and less on the edge of the lower lip. However variety in callosity material and colouration between individuals, groups and populations make such observations unreliable and redundant when their geographic seperation by the equator is considered.

Since these are gregarious animals they often approach boats closely so that these markings are easily seen below the surface. Each whale has a unique pattern of callosities allowing animals to be individually identified. Unlike other species of whale such as humpbacks or sperm whales the posterior edges of the flukes are usually smooth showing no unique markings and the underside is devoid of any patterns, being plain black or dark grey like the dorsal surface. On the belly, particularly around the genitals, are varied patches of white, which are also unique to each individual but harder to observe.

Northern Right Whales have been seen to engage in mating behaviour off Florida and Georgia.

Mating among these whales is a complex affair. Males compete with each other to mate with a receptive, or even non-receptive, female. There is much chasing and manoeuvring to get the female in the right position, all the while fending off the interference of competing males who push and shove or gouge with their rough callosities. Successful mating is only obtained by a persistent male as the female will often roll onto her back in order to foil the advances of the competing males. The actual act of mating does not guarantee that a particular male will succeed in reproducing his genes as other males who mate after will flush out his sperm with theirs as the massive testes, the largest of any living animal, produce enough sperm to flood the females ovaries.

The shore hugging habits of the Norhtern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) make land based viewing a viable alternative to the more expensive and uncomfortable boat viewing. Southern Rights will often swim right within the surf zone of sandy beaches but will rarely strand. Females feed and nurture their young in the shallows where they can best protect their young from predators such as their Killer Whale cousins or the Great White Shark.


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