Species: E. australis, E. glacialis, E. japonica
Common Names: Southern Right Whale (E. australis), North Atlantic Right Whale (E. glacialis), North Pacific Right Whale (E. japonica)
Right whales feed mostly on plankton, tiny organisms in the ocean. They swim through the ocean with their mouths open, taking in water that’s full of plankton. The water is then released, while the whale’s baleen traps the food organisms.
The right whale’s only natural predator is the orca, or killer whale. The animal can depend on its large size and powerful tail to dispel most predators as an adult, but right whale calves are still vulnerable to predation.
Right whales undertake long migrations, spending the summers in their feeding grounds, and then traveling long distances to give birth in the winter.
During mating season, right whales will gather in large groups of one female, and up to 20 males who compete for her affection.
Female right whales will usually breed every three years or so. Pregnancy lasts one year. When it’s born, the calf already weights one short ton and is over 10 feet in length.
Right whales were once thought to be a single species, but these days three different species are recognized: North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern. While there are minor differences between the species in appearance, they look mostly the same, and are mainly separated by their geographic ranges.
Right whales are large, robust whales with large heads. They can grow over 50 feet long and weight 100 short tons. Their jaws are highly arched, like their relative the bowhead whale, and full of baleen. Instead of teeth, these whales have a set of bristle-like plates that filter food from the water ingested by the whale.
Right whales are mostly black in color with white patches around the underside of the body. Their faces are typically covered in knobby rough patches of skin called callosities. These callosities frequently appear white or yellowish due to the whale lice that live on them. Each whale’s callosities form a distinctive and unique pattern.
In the early days of whaling, right whales were by far the most popular whale targeted for hunting. Prior to the 1700s, most whale hunting was done from shore, and right whales were one of the only species that could be spotted from shore. They were also slow swimmers, and tended to float once they were killed, so they could be harvested more easily. Once whaling became more modernized, the right whale remained a very appealing target, and numbers were heavily depleted during this time.
While it was initially thought that all right whales were the same species, DNA studies have shown that there are distinct populations. Surprisingly, the North Pacific right whale is more closely related to the Southern right whale than it is to the North Atlantic, despite their geographic distance from one another.