Over the course of time and history, whales were believed to be either mermaids seducing sailors with their songs and guide them on a deadly path. Some, like the legendary Moby Dick, were described as sea monsters. Paintings were created, depicting these cetaceans as ugly, fierce and scary as possible. Nowadays, we know better and are more intrigued that scared by these giants of the sea.
Physically, species have their own differences and peculiar characteristics but suborders such as the baleen whales and toothed whales also have some body parts that differ, according to their needs.
As an example, the baleen whale, which is also scientifically known as the Mysticeti suborder, has baleens made of keratin, which are used to filter their food and capture it while enabling it to release water. The toothed whale, belonging to the Odontoceti suborder, has teeth that allow them to bite, chew and tear up flesh.
Another characteristic is the fact that baleen whales have two blowholes while the toothed whales have one centered blowhole to the exception of the Sperm whale which has its blowhole located more on the left side.
The blowhole has a muscular flap that is water resistant. Whales release carbon dioxide and inhale oxygen which is then sent through the trachea and to the lungs. Some species can stay underwater without taking another breath for as long as two hours, such as it is the case for the Sperm whale.
Another physical difference between the two suborders of Cetaceans is the presence of a melon in Odontoceti and the absence of it in Mysticeti. You see, toothed whales use their melon, which is located on the front part of their head, is a useful tool for echolocation. Sounds from their prey bounce back on their melon which allows them to use echolocation to find their preys. It is a bit like a radar. It is particularly useful in murky waters, in the dark or when preys hide underneath the sand, on the ocean floor.
Like other mammals, they share the same characteristics. At birth, calves have a thin layer of hair which gradually disappears as they mature. It is rare to find adult whales with hair on its body. The loss of this hair allows the whales to become faster as their skin becomes smoother.
Another characteristic found in these marine mammals is their mammary glands, which are located between the umbilicus and the anus. These glands produce maternal milk to feed their young. The presence of the umbilicus confirms the fact that whales give birth to a live young.
Whales also have lungs and are warm-blooded. Their blubber acts as insulation to keep their body temperature elevated even in frigid waters such as in the Artic Ocean. Their skeleton is made of bones and is not cartilaginous like fish such as sharks. In fact, scientists have found that the flippers of a beluga have five digits-like bone structures, which can be a reminder of human hands. Is it possible that some whale species such as the ancestor of the beluga whale used to crawl on land for periods of time?
As you can see, it is not only the color, the appearance or the size that matters. The organs and body parts that are present or absent in certain whale species are quite important as they make a difference in how they meet their needs.
Here is a good diagram of most general characteristics in whale anatomy.
If you wish to learn more about whales, I encourage you to visit the homepage of this site called: whales.