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Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)

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Southern Right Whale / Jon Mountjoy, Flickr

Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) head, showing callosities. Photo taken off Gansbaai, South Africa.

Jon Mountjoy, Flickr

The southern right whale is one of 3 right whale species. The other two are the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whale. The southern right whale has the curious habit of "sailing" in strong winds by lifting its huge tail flukes above the water surface.

The name "right whale" originated with whalers, who considered these species the "right" whale to hunt because it moves slowly, floats when dead, and has long baleen and thick blubber, both of which were commodities sought by whalers.

Description:

The southern right whale is a large, bulky-looking baleen whale that reaches lengths of 45-55 feet and weights up to 60 tons.

Southern right whales have a black back, white pigmentation on the belly, and roughened skin patches called "callosities" on their heads, which can be used to identify individual whales.

Classification:

Habitat and Distribution:

Like many other large whale species, the southern right whale migrates between warmer, low-latitude breeding grounds and colder, high-latitude feeding grounds. Their breeding grounds are fairly distinct, and include South Africa, Argentina, Australia, and parts of New Zealand.

Southern right whales migrate to feeding areas in latitudes from 40-65 degrees South in summer, which includes areas around the Antarctic and South Georgia.

Feeding:

Right whales are cetaceans that belong to the Suborder Mysticeti, the baleen whales. Mysticetes have hundreds of baleen plates hanging from their upper jaw that allow the whale to separate its prey from the ocean water.

Right whales have about 500 baleen plates, which are up to 7 feet long. They use these plates to skim-feed for planktonic organisms, primarily copepods, most of which are no more than a millimeter in length. They eat over 2,000 pounds of these organisms each day.

Reproduction:

Right whales are promiscuous, with courtship taking place throughout the year and one male often mating with multiple females. The whales often congregate in “surface active groups” of up to 40 whales, which involve a lot of thrashing and splashing. This behavior was initially thought to be related primarily to courtship and mating, but may also be socialization and play.

The right whale is pregnant for about a year before giving birth to a single calf about 15 feet long. The calf nurses for at least 9 months and stays with its mother for about a year. Right whales are thought to live at least 70 years.

Conservation:

The southern right whale has the highest population of the 3 right whale species. Southern right whales have been protected from whalers since 1931 and have recovered slowly, with a population of 7,000 estimated in 2001. Even though their current populations are a fraction of their historical abundance, they are considered a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List.

Sources:

  • American Cetacean Society. 2004. Right Whale (Online - link no longer active), American Cetacean Society. Accessed March 30, 2010.
  • NOAA Office of Protected Resources. Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) (Online), NOAA. Accessed March 30, 2010.
  • Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G.P., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N. 2008. Eubalaena australis. (Online). IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.1. Accessed March 30, 2010.
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