sperm whale

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Sperm Whale

Physeter catodon

Status Endangered
Listed June 2, 1970
Family Physeteridae (Toothed Whales)
Description Large, dark gray, toothed whale with a square head.
Habitat Pelagic.
Food Squid, sharks, bony fishes.
Reproduction One calf every three years.
Threats Human predation.
Range Oceanic


The sperm whale, Physeter catodon, is a large, robust, toothed whale with a massive square head equal to one-third of the body length. Males range in length from 40-60 ft (12-18 m) and may weigh up to 58 tons (65 metric tons). Females are smaller in length and weight, about 30 ft ( 9 m) and 20 tons (22 metric tons). A narrow lower jaw closes the mouth, which contains 20-24 conical teeth. Coloration is dark or brownish gray, grading to light gray or white beneath, particularly around the jaw. The S-shaped blow-hole is located on the front and to the left of the snout, rather than on top. The dorsal fin varies in shape from a strongly defined triangle to a low hump. The skin has a prune-like texture overall.

A reservoir in the whale's head, containing oil and once thought to hold sperm, gave the whale its name. Many taxonomists now prefer the classification Physeter macrocephalus. Herman Melville's Moby Dick was a sperm whale.


The sperm whale exhibits a complex social organization that is not well understood. Scientists have noted two types of schools, each comprising up to about 50 animals-bachelor schools made up of un-mated bulls, and nursery schools composed of cows and nursing calves. During breeding season, males compete for control over breeding females and establish harems of about ten cows. The gestation period is 16 months, after which a single calf is born, 13 ft (4 m) long and weighing nearly a ton (0.9 metric tons).

Sperm whales follow schools of squid and octopus to great depths, routinely diving 1,500 ft (450 m) below the surface and possibly diving 10,000 ft (3,000 m) on occasion. A variety of fishes, such as sharks, rays, skates, and bony fishes are also eaten.


The sperm whale is a creature of the open ocean and deep oceanic canyons. It ranges from the edges of both polar ice caps to the equator, breeding in the warmer latitudes and migrating to cooler latitudes. Large males cover greater distances and travel furthest to reach the edges of the polar ice.


Historically, the sperm whale was found throughout the world's oceans, concentrated mostly in the middle latitudes. The population once numbered in the millions, making it the mainstay of the whaling industry.

Although the population has been greatly reduced by whaling, the sperm whale is considered the least threatened of the great whales. Current population estimates range from 700,000 to nearly 2 million.


The sperm whale was one of the earliest targets of whalers and was hunted for centuries, primarily for spermaceti oil taken from an organ in the nose. This oil, which allows whales to decompress after deep dives, was used in oil lamps and for lubrication. In addition to oil, the mammal was valued as the source of ambergris, a waxy secretion used in the fabrication of perfumes because of its ability to hold scent. The sperm whale has been commercially hunted since the 11th century reaching its peak in 1820-1860 and again in 1960-1962 when new technologies assisted in taking 67,000 individuals in only two years.

Conservation and Recovery

Restrictions were first placed on hunting of sperm whales at the International Conference on Whaling convened by the League of Nations in 1937. Quotas and size restrictions were established to protect females and assure future breeding stock. When large bulls were taken, however, the fertility rate of harems declined precipitously.

By the late 1970s conservation groups, alarmed by the continuing decline of the sperm whale, pressured government members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to greatly reduce fishing quotas for the sperm whale. As a result, factory-ship whaling, using floating meat and oil processing plants, was banned. Soviet whaling was severely curtailed, and the Japanese agreed to take only minke whales in Antarctic waters. Hunting quotas for the sperm whale were established in the low thousands at that time.

In 1986, the IWC declared a moratorium on the killing of whales, except for the purposes of scientific research, a ban that has more or less been observed by all 38 member countries.


Office of Protected Resources
National Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, Maryland 20910

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Endangered
Species Mail Stop 420 ARLSQ
1849 C St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20240


Baker, M. L. 1987. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the World. Doubleday, Garden City.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 1991. Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis ). Right Whale Recovery Team, National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, MD.

Norris, K. S., and G. W. Harvey. 1972. "A Theory for the Function of the Spermaceti Organ of the Sperm Whale." In Animal Orientation and Navigation. NASA, Washington, D.C.

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sperm whale, largest of the toothed whales, 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 ambergris, 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 oil, and a wax called spermaceti. Sperm whaling 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 Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Cetacea, family Physeteridae.

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sperm whale • n. a toothed whale of the family Physeteridae (esp. the very large Physeter macrocephalus), with a massive head, typically feeding at great depths on squid, formerly valued for the spermaceti and sperm oil in its head and the ambergris in its intestines.

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sperm whale Largest of the toothed whales. It has a squarish head and feeds on squid and cuttlefish. Species Physeter catodon.

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sperm whale (Physeter catodon) See PHYSETERIDAE.