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Bowhead Whale

Scientific Name:
Balaena mysticetus

Other Names and/or Listed subspecies:
Greenland Right Whale, Arctic Whale

Group: Mammals

Status/Date Listed as Endangered:
EN-US FWS: June 2, 1970

Area(s) Where Listed As Endangered:
Oceans (N. latitudes only)

Also known as the Arctic whale, the bowhead whale is only found in the northern oceans. It is named for its large bow-shaped mouth. Bowhead whales do not migrate to warmer waters to feed or reproduce like other whales, and they spend their entire lives in the cold waters of the Arctic. Adults reach up to 59 feet long and weigh up to 22,000 lb. Females are larger than males. They are robust-bodied and dark colored, and they have no dorsal fin. The lower jaw makes a U-shape around the upper jaw and is very large and strong. A blowhole appears on the top of the head, and bowheads are able to smash through ice as thick as 27 inches to create breathing holes. They are also covered with a thick layer of blubber to protect them from the cold.

Bowhead whales are often found close to the edge of the Arctic ice shelf, and in the summer they can be found in bays, straits, and estuaries. They are very social and communicate by long-distance vocalization under the water. They prefer to remain in large groups, but break up into smaller groups when ready to migrate. Bowheads are "baleen" whales, which means that they filter water through their baleen plates in order to feed on krill and other planktonic crustaceans that get caught in the plates. Mating occurs from March until August, and females give birth to one calf after 13 to 14 months of pregnancy.

Bowhead whales are threatened by collision with ships, accidental capture in fishing nets, pollution, and hunting for their blubber, meat, oil, bones, and baleen. Unfortunately, they are easy to hunt since they are slow swimmers and easy to catch. Before commercial whaling began in the 1800s, the bowhead whale population was over 50,000, and nearly 60% had been wiped out. The population has recovered since commercial whaling was ceased, but they are still hunted by Alaska natives that continue to kill a small number of whales. Today the population is believed to be less than 10,000.

Bowhead Whale Facts Last Updated: July 25, 2008

To Cite This Page:
Glenn, C. R. 2006. "Earth's Endangered Creatures - Bowhead Whale Facts" (Online).
Accessed 3/23/2017 at


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