Whale is the common name for a widely distributed and diverse group of fully aquatic marine mammals. They are an informal grouping within the infraorder Cetacea, excluding dolphins and porpoises, so to zoologists the grouping is paraphyletic. The whales comprise the extant families Cetotheriidae (whose only living member is the pygmy right whale), Balaenopteridae (the rorquals), Balaenidae (right whales), Eschrichtiidae (the gray whale), Monodontidae (belugas and narwhals), Physeteridae (the sperm whale), Kogiidae (the dwarf and pygmy sperm whale), and Ziphiidae (the beaked whales). There are 40 extant species of whales. The two parvorders of whales, Mysticeti and Odontoceti, are thought to have split apart around 34 million years ago. Whales, dolphins and porpoises belong to the order Cetartiodactyla with even-toed ungulates and their closest living relatives are the hippopotamuses, having diverged about 40 million years ago.

Whales range in size from the 2.6 metres (8.5 ft) and 135 kilograms (298 lb) dwarf sperm whale to the 34 metres (112 ft) and 190 metric tons (210 short tons) blue whale, which is the largest creature on earth. Several species exhibit sexual dimorphism, in that the females are larger than males. They have streamlined bodies and two limbs that are modified into flippers. Though not as flexible or agile as seals, whales can travel at up to 20 knots. Balaenopterids use their throat pleats to expand the mouth to take in gulps of water. Balaenids have heads that can make up 40% of their body mass to take in water. Odontocetes have conical teeth designed for catching fish or squid. Mysticetes have a well developed sense of "smell", whereas odontocetes have well-developed hearing − their hearing, that is adapted for both air and water, is so well developed that some can survive even if they are blind. Some species are well adapted for diving to great depths. They have a layer of fat, or blubber, under the skin to keep warm in the cold water.

Although whales are widespread, most species prefer the colder waters of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and migrate to the equator to give birth. Odontocetes feed largely on fish and squid. A few, like the sperm whale, feed on large invertebrates, such as giant squid. Grey whales are specialized for feeding on bottom-dwelling molluscs. Male whales typically mate with multiple females every year, but females only mate every two to three years. Calves are typically born in the spring and summer months and females bear all the responsibility for raising them. Mothers of some species fast and nurse their young for a relatively long period of time. Whales produce a variety of vocalizations, notably the songs of the humpback whale.

Once relentlessly hunted for their products, whales are now protected by international law. The North Atlantic right whales nearly became extinct in the twentieth century, with a population low of 450, and the North Pacific gray whale population is ranked Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Besides whaling, they also face threats from bycatch and marine pollution. The meat, blubber and baleen of whales have traditionally been used by indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Whales have been depicted in various cultures worldwide, notably by the Inuit and the coastal peoples of Vietnam and Ghana, who sometimes hold whale funerals. Whales occasionally feature in literature and film, as in the great white whale of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Small whales, such as belugas, are sometimes kept in captivity and trained to perform tricks, but breeding success has been poor and the animals often die within a few months of capture. Whale watching has become a form of tourism around the world.


"Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable."
Carl Sagan
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