Sleepy Whales: Do Whales Yawn?

do whales yawn

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Whales are the biggest animals currently roaming the earth, with some species weighing as much as 150,000 pounds and being up to 25 meters in length.

Baleen whales, such as humpbacks and blue whales have giant mouths that they use to scoop up prey such as plankton and krill before sieving out the water and gobbling up their meal.

A humpback’s mouth can be as large as 10 feet and works like a balloon by expanding as they gulp mouthfuls of water and food.

In this post, we’re going to answer a question that is often asked when discussing whales and their enormous mouths. “Do whales yawn?”

NO, whales do NOT yawn. They are conscious breathers that take purposeful breaths when they reach the surface for air. Yawning is an involuntary act that does not apply to whales.

Do Whales Really Yawn?

Yawning is an involuntary process of opening the mouth, breathing in deeply, and filling the lungs with air.

It happens to both humans and animals, most often when we’re tired, and has some important functions that help us stay awake.

As much as it would be nice to believe that whales let off a big yawn when they’re feeling tired after a long migration, this isn’t the case. Sadly, whales do NOT yawn.

do whales yawn
Image: BW via Flickr

Cetaceans which include whales, dolphins, and porpoises do not yawn, largely because they are conscious breathers that have to make the active decision to breathe.

Not only that but their mouths are completely disconnected from their lungs and they’re unable to breathe through their mouths at all.

Why Do Animals Yawn?

Pretty much all vertebrates yawn. Most research on spontaneous yawning points to a psychological function that is said to increase blood flow to the head which oxygenates and cools the brain.

This makes the animal more alert, especially when it’s feeling sleepy. Yawning cools an overheating brain and also reduces anxiety. It’s also just as contagious in animals as it is in humans!

If you ever see a monkey yawn, you’ll notice that lots of other nearby monkeys will begin to yawn as just like us they “catch” yawns.

Yawning also helps to bring more oxygen into the bloodstream and move carbon dioxide out of the blood.

It’s an involuntary reflex that we humans and animals are unable to control but helps to manage oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

With that said, it’s still somewhat of a mystery as to why mammals yawn, and it could be from boredom, oxygenating the brain, or other reasons.

Why Don’t Whales Yawn?

Whales differ from other mammals as they breathe through a blowhole that is located at the top of their heads.

They’re conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to breathe and make an active decision to do so.

Even while whales sleep, they need to remain near the surface so that when they’re oxygen levels are getting low they can breathe and replenish their supply.

As whales rely on their blowhole to breathe, opening their mouths wide to “yawn” would not serve them to oxygenate their brains, therefore it’s not something they do.

Besides, the energy required for whales to yawn would make it a laborious task that isn’t beneficial just as blinking is for many whales.

Whales are also able to hold their breath for much longer than most other animals, so there’s no need for them to rush oxygen to their bloodstream.

When exerting themselves, whales swim closer to the surface so that they can take breaths as regularly as needed.

Do Any Marine Mammals Yawn?

YES, among marine mammals, seals, sea lions, and walruses, also known as pinnipeds DO yawn.

Whilst it’s true that seals do yawn, it’s important to note that this “yawning” behavior may not actually be a yawn and could be a warning signal.

humpback whale
Image: Pablo Fernicola via Flickr

Seals “yawning” must be taken in context, as sometimes the animal is purely yawning and others it may be a warning sick to back off.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now have a clear answer to “do whales yawn” and have a better understanding as to why they DO NOT.

Whales simply don’t need to yawn, there’s no requirement for them to do so. They breathe through blowholes that are located on their heads, and their mouth is not connected to the circulatory system.

In fact, whales can’t breathe through their mouths at all and rely solely on their blowhole.

If a whale was to yawn, it would look very different from how most mammals yawn as their mouth would likely not move.

It’s true that some marine animals yawn, such as the pinnipeds, but it’s important to keep in mind that their “yawn” may in fact be a warning sign to stay back.

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