Hungry Giants: Are Humpback Whales Carnivores?

are humpback whales carnivores

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In this article, you will find a detailed insight into what this behemoth eats on a regular basis and an answer to are humpback whales carnivores?

Yes, humpback whales are carnivores. Their prey is microscopic as compared to their gigantic size. They feed on tiny crustaceans, small fish, and plankton.

Humpback whales are wild sea creatures that have unique behavioral patterns and dietary requirements. 

They travel across vast volumes of water and acquire food during the process. A diet of roughly 4,400-5,500 lbs. is consumed by a humpback whale on a typical day. 

The humpback whale’s mouth consists of baleen plates which further form hundreds of comb-like bristles, composed of keratin protein (the same protein that makes up hair and nails in humans).

The plates grow in the upper jaw in place of teeth and are used to sieve seawater for food. Since they don’t have teeth, they eat animals that they can swallow as a whole. 

Let’s take a closer look…

An Introduction To The Humpback Whale

Humpback whales are one of the largest animals found on earth. They are often found in the Northern Hemisphere from the north Pacific, South-East Alaska, British Colombia and migrate seasonally to Hawaii, the Gulf of California, and more.

They have an incredibly huge size (40 to 50 tons) and a lifespan of 70 to 90 years.

Whales are classified into two suborders depending on the presence of tooth or baleen. A Humpback whale is a type of baleen whale.

Baleen is a filter-feeding system present in the mouth of whales. It consists of baleen plates which further form hundreds of comb-like bristles, composed of keratin protein (the same protein that makes up hair and nails in humans).

It grows in the upper jaw in place of teeth and is used to sieve seawater for food. Since they don’t have teeth, they eat animals that they can swallow without chewing.

Summer is the time of feeding and winter is the time of mating for humpback whales.

They inhabit colder regions such as Alaska and Antarctica during the summers because large quantities of fish, krill, and squids are present in that region.

It is interesting to know that they spend approximately 20 hours a day feeding but totally forgo it during the winter months.

The only humpback whales that feed during the winter months are the young calves.

They feed on their mother’s milk which is secreted by the mammary slits, by attaching themselves vertically to the midline of a mother.

Are Humpback Whales Carnivores?

Carnivores are animals that prey on other animals and eat them as food. Humpback whales like all other whales are carnivores.

Although the percentage of meat in their diet is significant, its very presence makes them predacious.

They do not travel distances to find just one kind of fish. Instead, they are carnivores and eat any fish they can swallow.

Some studies have observed the presence of a “microbiome” in the gut of humpback whales and concluded that they have evolved from herbivorous ancestors.

Since the present humpback whales feed primarily on smaller sea creatures, they are said to be carnivores.

Why Are Humpback Whales Carnivores?

Humpback whales are endemic to every ocean in the world. They eat quite indiscriminately and are active meat hunters.

They are carnivorous due to their feeding habit. They feed in rich and productive waters where there is an abundance of food.

They do not directly gulp the whole animal but prefer to be filter feeders. They eat twice a day and eat a whole lot of food at one time.

What Do Humpback Whales Eat?

Humpback whales are always in search of getting enough food to support their high energy requirements.

They do not eat large fishes like tuna or swordfish; instead, they feed on krill (copepods), plankton (example- algae, protozoans), crustaceans (example- octopus, shrimp), and small fish (example-salmon, mackerel).

The shell of crustaceans is made of a very complex carbohydrate, chitin. Chitin is digested by the enzymes found in the stomach and is a source of high nutrition.

Humpback whales swim with their mouth open toward the target and consume water with small prey.

Then they use baleen plates to push water out of their mouth; the baleen plates act as a barrier to stop the prey from escaping.

More On The Humpback Whales Diet

In “lunge feeding” the humpback whales move through the water with their mouth wide open. It takes in a large volume of water and pushes out the excess water filtering the food through its baleen.

In Bubble net feeding, they make vocalizations to scare and immobilize creatures on the surface of the water (the pitch of these sounds produced is as high as to break the eardrum of a human).

Then they let out air bubbles through their blow holes (present on the surface of the skin) which act as a confusing net.

The bubbles move up to the surface of the water and trap the immobilized animals. It gives easy access to a group of prey.

The humpback whales then lunge upwards with an open mouth and devour as much prey as possible at one time.

Bubble net feeding is a learned behavior and is not found in all populations of humpback whales. It is a collaborative task; the whales coordinate by using vocalizations.

This teamwork makes mealtime more fun and less challenging. 

In Lobtail feeding, they use the pectoral and caudal fin to stun the fishes and crustaceans. They flip and snap their fins to disorientate their prey on the surface of the water and devour them.

Some studies have observed the lobtail feeding behavior in humpback whales when they are about to begin bubble net feeding. 

The stomach is a very interesting organ of the humpback whale’s body. Since they do not have teeth, grinding and crushing also happen in the stomach. It has three main parts.

No digestive enzymes are produced in the first part; the peristaltic movement crushes the food and passes it on to the next part, where digestive enzymes break down the food into smaller particles.

The third part has powerful digestive acids that further break down the food and prepare it for absorption and processing in the later parts of the digestive system. 

Final Thoughts

Humpback whales spend the whole summer season feasting; so they can peacefully focus on migration and mating during winter.

They are toothless; instead, they have baleen plates bearing hundreds of bristles, used to filter prey from the water.

Hence, they have a small esophagus. Lucky for us, they cannot swallow humans or large animals.

Even if there is an accidental encounter, they will spit you back out. That is why scuba divers are snorkeling freely with the whales.

The feeding behavior of humpback whales gives us a classic example of the fact that; you cannot assume what food one eats by simply looking at their enormous size.

Hopefully, you now have a clear answer to your question and have enjoyed learning something new today about humpback whales.