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Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)


Adult bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)
Michael Nolan/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images
The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) got its name from its high, arched jaw that resembles a bow. They are a cold-water whale that lives in the Arctic. Bowheads are still hunted by natives whalers in the Arctic.


The bowhead whale, also known as the Greenland right whale, is about 45-60 feet long and weighs 75-100 tons when full-grown. They have a stocky appearance.

Bowheads are mostly blue-black in coloration, but have white on their jaw and belly, and a patch on its tail stock (peduncle) that gets whiter with age. Bowheads also have stiff hairs on their jaws. Bowheads have broad, paddle-shaped, 6-foot long flippers and a huge, notched fluke (tail) that can be 25 feet across from tip to tip.

The bowhead's blubber layer is over 1 1/2 feet thick, which provides insulation against the cold waters of the Arctic.

A new organ was discovered in bowhead whales, and detailed in a study published in 2013. The roughly 12-foot long organ is on the roof of a bowhead whale's mouth and is made of a sponge-like tissue. The organ was discovered by scientists during the processing of a bowhead whale by natives. They think that it is used to regulate heat, and possibly for detecting prey and regulating baleen growth. Read more here.


Habitat & Distribution:

The bowhead is a cold-water species, living in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding waters. Click here for a range map.


Bowhead whales are a baleen whale, meaning they filter their food, which includes planktonic crustaceans such as copepods, plus small invertebrates and fish from the seawater.

Bowheads have about 600 baleen plates that are up to 14 feet long, illustrating the immense size of the whale's head.


The bowhead's breeding season is in late spring/early summer. Once mating occurs, the gestation period is 13-14 months long, after which a calf is born. Calves are 11-18 feet long and 2,000 pounds in weight when born. The calf nurses for 9-12 months and isn't sexually mature until it is 20 years old.

The bowhead is considered one of the world's longest-living animals, with evidence showing some bowheads may live to over 200 years.


The bowhead whale is listed as species of least concern on the IUCN Red List, as the population is increasing. However, the population, currently estimated at 7,000-10,000 animals, is far lower than the estimated 35,000-50,000 whales that existed before they were decimated by commercial whaling. Only about 3,000 bowheads existed by the 1920's. Due to this depletion, it is still listed as endangered by the U.S.

Bowheads are still hunted by native Arctic whalers, who use the meat, baleen, bones and organs for food, art, household goods, and construction. The International Whaling Commission issues subsistence whaling quotas to the U.S., Russia, and (soon) Greenland each year to hunt bowheads.


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