Social organization of baleen whales

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Baleen whales are specialized to find and exploit prey that form dense patches seasonally within broad ocean areas. Most populations have an annual reproductive cycle that separates their breeding season from their feeding season, often with long-distance migrations between feeding and breeding areas. The longest bond we know of for most baleen whale species is the mother-calf bond. Calves suckle for five to seven months in most species and wean by the next feeding season. The species whose social behavior has been most studied is the humpback whale, enabled by their distribution, which often is near shore, and their individually distinctive natural markings. Some humpback whales feeding on mobile prey form stable groups where each individual learns specific roles to perform coordinated group foraging. Aside from these groups, which may last for many years, most baleen whale groups are reported to be fluid with few strong associations between individuals other than mother and calf. However, most researchers define whale groups in terms of the number of whales that are close enough to be sighted within a certain distance of one another. Sound propagates so well underwater that whale sounds can be heard at distances of tens to hundreds of kilometers away. This means that whales may be able to maintain contact over much greater ranges than are usually assessed by human observers—they may form long-range “heards” in addition to shorter range “herds.” The social organization of whales during the breeding season is structured in part by songs—acoustic reproductive advertisement displays. The potential scale of “heards” is indicated by the ability of scientists to track one singing blue whale for 43 days as it swam > 1700 km. Scientists will start to develop a fuller understanding of the social organization of baleen whales when they apply methods that can make observations and test hypotheses over the temporal and spatial scales at which baleen whales move and communicate.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthology and behavioral ecology of mysticetes
EditorsChristopher W. Clark, Ellen C. Garland
Place of PublicationCham
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9783030984496
ISBN (Print)9783030984489, 9783030984519
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2022

Publication series

NameEthology and behavioral ecolocy of marine mammals
ISSN (Print)2523-7500
ISSN (Electronic)2523-7519


  • Baleen whale
  • Social organization
  • Annual cycle
  • Feeding
  • Migration
  • Breeding and calving
  • Song
  • Effective range of communication


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