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IUCN threat status:

Least Concern (LC)

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Species Abstract

The Southern right whale (scientific name: Eubalaena australis) is one of four species of marine mammal in the family Balaenidae, part of the order of cetaceans. The Southern right whale is a baleen whale, meaning that instead of teeth, it has long plates which hang in a row (like the teeth of a comb) from its upper jaws. Baleen plates are strong and flexible; they are made of a protein similar to human fingernails. Baleen plates are broad at the base (gumline) and taper into a fringe which forms a curtain or mat inside the whale's mouth. Baleen whales strain huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates to capture food: tons of krill, other zooplankton, crustaceans, and small fish.

The right whale got its name because during the height of whaling efforts, this was the 'right' whale to catch, as it is large, slow-moving and floats when dead. Following serious over-exploitation from the 1600s until the 1930s, the southern right whale population became dangerously low. International protection in 1935 allowed a slow increase in population, but illegal whaling continued into the 1960s. However, whilst this huge and unsustainable threat has largely been eliminated, pressures on the southern right whale still exist. Disturbance from vessels, divers, coastal industrial activity, entanglement in fishing gear and water pollution are all concerns.

This whale is easy to identify as it has a uniformly dark colour with white callosities (outgrowths of hard skin) on and around the head which can even be used to distinguish individuals. The body is rotund and the head is very large, making up one third of the total length. Unusually for baleen whales, the Southern right whale does not have a dorsal fin or a grooved throat. The flippers are short and wide, and the blow hole is V-shaped.

Southern right whales belong in separate breeding groups which travel to their own areas to reproduce. Up to eight males may mate with one female between July and August, but unusually for mammals, aggression between males is minimal. Females calve once every three years between June and August, with a gestation period of 11 to 12 months. Calving females go for four months during the winter months without eating, and give birth to a single, large calf weighing up to 1500 kilograms. Females will nurture and feed their calves in the shallows where they are well protected from attacks by orcas and great white sharks. Calves are weaned after a year, and will reach sexual maturity at nine to ten years. These enormous animals eat some of the smallest creatures in the ocean, filtering water through long and numerous baleen plates to feed on the small plankton including larval crustaceans and copepods. Southern right whales produce short, low-frequency moans, groans, belches and pulses. Typical feeding dives last between 10 and 20 metres and southern right whales are also frequently seen at or above the surface of the water, slapping the water with its tail and flippers, rolling, and breaching (launching out of the water and landing on the side or back). The function of these behaviours is not known.

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