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Animal Facts: North Atlantic right whale

  • Published May 30, 2023
  • Updated Jul 06
  • 549 words
  • 3 minutes
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the planet's most endangered large whale species. (Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA)
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The massive North Atlantic Right Whale is Canada’s “true whale of the ice.”

 

Fast Facts

Common name: North Atlantic right whale

Scientific name: Eubalaena glacialis

Type: mammal

Diet: carnivore

Group name: pod

Average weight: 30,000 – 70,000 kilograms

Average length: 16 metres

COSEWIC status: endangered

Did you know?

Scientists can identify individual North Atlantic right whales, along with their Pacific and Southern counterparts, by patches of raised, rough white tissue on a whale’s head, chin, and lower lip known as callosities. One whale known to researchers as ‘Vega’ is recognizable by three white callosities on the side of his head.

Physical characteristics and behaviour

North Atlantic right whales have broad black bodies with no dorsal fins, unlike some other cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals that includes dolphins and porpoises). Their flippers are broad and paddle-shaped with wide tails that have a deep notch in the middle separating two black, smooth, trailing edges. Their bellies can vary in colour; they may be all black or have irregularly shaped white patches. Because their blow holes are so widely spread out, the whales’ five-metre-tall blow spouts are shaped like a “V.”

North Atlantic right whales are social creatures – typically living in small groups called pods of just a few whales to a dozen or more in a feeding area . 

The mammals belong to a part of the baleen class of whales, which also includes blue whales and humpbacks. This class uses baleen, instead of teeth, to catch and eat food. When swimming through fields of prey, North Atlantic right whales will open their wide mouths – the corners of which end above their eyes – and use their comb-like baleen plates and bristles to filter food from saltwater.

Diet

North Atlantic right whales feed primarily on zooplankton, which includes small crustaceans and other small invertebrates like krill, pteropods, and larval barnacles. Like other whales, they catch their prey by skimming through patches of concentrated zooplankton at or below the ocean surface. The North Atlantic right whale can eat as much as 1,100 kilograms of these sea critters in just one day.

Habitat and distribution

Historically, the North Atlantic right whale lived in an upside-down U-shape along the eastern shores of North America, the southern shores of Greenland, the western shores of Europe, and the northwestern shores of Africa – and could be found far offshore and shallow and deep coastal waters. Today, they’re most likely to be seen only in North American waters. 

Through the summer months, North Atlantic right whales are likely to be found in their feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy and on the Scotian Shelf. They’ve also been spotted in the Gaspé Peninsula, in Québec, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in recent years. In October, North Atlantic right whales will start to migrate south again for warmer waters. 

 North Atlantic right whales were one of the most popular whales to hunt for oil and baleen, due to their thick layer of blubber. By the late 1800s, populations had dropped from the thousands to near-extinction levels. In 1935, the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, banned the hunting of right whales. Today, there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales left.

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