Big Bone Mystery: Do Whales Have Bones?

do whales have bones

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Whales are true giants that have adapted to their ocean habitat over 50 million years since they evolved from early land mammals.

There were many adaptations that were needed when transitioning from life on land to life in the ocean, including losing their hind limbs, developing flippers, and growing a tail.

The whale’s anatomy changed over time to better suit aquatic life. A question that may seem obvious to some but is surprisingly complex is “do whales have bones?”

YES, whales do have bones. The number of bones varies depending on the species, but they have fewer bones than we humans as they don’t have legs or feet.

Let’s take a closer look…

Do Whales Really Have Bones?

Whilst whales may look like giant squidgy animals made from only blubber, they do in fact have a skeleton that is made of real bones.

The whale’s skeleton and bone structure are made of calcium and provide these marine giants with a number of benefits.

do whales have bones
Image: Kyle Mortana via Flickr

Bones give the whale’s body its shape, allow them to move through the water, make blood cells and provide protection for the internal organs.

What Bones Do Whales Have?

Whales have a variety of different bones which includes a skull, backbone, pelvis bones, rib cage as well as lots of smaller bones in their fins.

The bone structure in whales varies, with baleen whales having much larger skulls than toothed whales due to their enormous jaws that open up to catch prey.

In baleen whales, the upper jaw supports a “curtain” of baleen which hangs down from the mandibles and helps catch krill, squid, and small fish that the whales eat.

Sperm whales on the other hand are toothed whales, they have giant heads and a jaw that houses teeth on the bottom to catch giant squid.

How Many Bones Do Whales Have?

The number of bones a whale has largely depends on the length of the whale, with larger species having more bones than smaller whales.

For example, blue whales are the largest animals that have ever roamed the earth, so naturally, they have more bones than a right whale.

Below are the number of bones some whale species have:

  • Blue whale – 356 bones
  • Sperm whale – 184 bones
  • Right whale – 177 bones
  • Humpback whale – 161 bones
  • Killer whale – 250 bones

How Big Are Whale Bones?

Aside from archeological bones that have been found from the days of the dinosaurs, whales have the biggest bones in the animal kingdom.

The overall length of a blue whale’s skeleton is around 25 meters in length, the largest bone in nature is the blue whale’s mandible which is 7 meters long.

There are whale skeletons in museums today which weigh a whopping 7,700 pounds and are comprised of 98% bone.

Blue whales are baleen whales that have giant jaws that expand and scoop up large amounts of prey.

These whales are the biggest on earth and can weigh anywhere from 130,000 – 150,000 and be up to 30 meters long, so it comes as no surprise that their bones are HUGE.

do whales have bones
Image: Flickr (Rachel Clarke)

That said, even these giants have small, intricate bones that contribute to their function.

Blue whales don’t have ears, but they do have small earbones that pick up the tiniest of vibrations and allow these whales to pick up sounds across oceans.

Do Whales Have Strong Bones?

Whale skeletons are built from bone, a strong, relatively inflexible material that is kept healthy by blood flowing through it.

They have dense, heavy bones that allow them to dive to great depths when required as well as stay in the water column more easily.

That said, the bones of whales that dive incredibly deep such as sperm whales are much less dense than those of land mammals.

The lower the bone density, the more energy the animal exerts while diving. But it also spends less energy to return to the surface from the deep.

What Are Whale Bones Made Of?

Whale bones are made up of a framework of a protein called collagen, with a mineral called calcium phosphate that is hard and strong (just like our human bones).

Bones store calcium and release it into the bloodstream when it’s needed by other body parts.

Baleen whales such as blue whales and humpbacks have jaws filled with baleen plates. These plates are made from keratin, which is the same substance found in human hair and nails.

Baleen is a robust and flexible material that is perfect to capture plankton, krill, squid, and other crustaceans in the whale’s mouth before they sieve out the water and gobble their food.

Final Thoughts

So, do whales have bones? Yes, they certainly do. Whales have giant bones that give their large bodies structure, provide their organs with protection and help them dive when needed.

Whales have a lot fewer bones than we humans as they do not have legs or feet, but they do have bones in their flippers, fins, and heads.

The number of bones a whale has will depend on its size and species, but the largest whale ever, the blue whale has 356 bones, some large and some small.

Blue whale bones are gigantic, and the biggest bone in nature is the blue whale’s mandible which is a whopping 7 feet in length.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I’ll see you in the next one!