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Pygmy sperm whale

Pygmy sperm whale[1]
Illustration from the 19th century
Size compared to an average human
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Subclass: Eutheria
Order: Cetartiodactyla[1]
(unranked): Cetacea
(unranked): Odontoceti
Family: Kogiidae
Genus: Kogia
Species: K. breviceps
Binomial name
Kogia breviceps
Blainville, 1838
Pygmy sperm whale range

Euphysetes breviceps

The pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) is one of three species of toothed whale in the sperm whale family. They are not often sighted at sea, and most of what is known about them comes from the examination of stranded specimens.


  • Taxonomy 1
  • Description 2
  • Anatomy 3
    • Teeth 3.1
    • Melon 3.2
    • Stomach 3.3
    • Brain 3.4
  • Echolocation 4
  • Reproduction 5
  • Behaviour 6
  • Population and distribution 7
  • Human interaction 8
  • Conservation 9
  • Specimens 10
  • See also 11
  • Footnotes 12
  • References 13
  • Further reading 14
  • External links 15


There has been debate and differing opinion as to the correct classification of the pygmy and dwarf sperm whales (see sperm whale family for details). The two were widely considered to be the same species, until 1966, when a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution definitively identified them as separate species.[9] The pygmy sperm whale was first named by Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1838.[10]


The pygmy sperm whale is not much larger than many dolphins. They are about 1.2 metres (3 ft 11 in) at birth, growing to about 3.5 metres (11 ft) at maturity. Adults weigh about 400 kilograms (880 lb). The underside is a creamy, occasionally pinkish, colour and the back and sides are a bluish grey; there is, however, considerable intermixing between the two colours. The shark-like head is large in comparison to body size, given an almost swollen appearance when viewed from the side. There is a whitish marking, often described as a "false gill", behind each eye.[11][12]

The lower jaw is very small and slung low. The blowhole is displaced slightly to the left when viewed from above facing forward. The dorsal fin is very small and hooked; its size is considerably smaller than that of the dwarf sperm whale and may be used for diagnostic purposes.


Like its giant cousin, the sperm whale for a discussion of its purpose). It also has a sac in its intestines that contains a dark red fluid. The whale may expel this fluid when frightened, perhaps to confuse and disorient predators.[13]

Pygmy sperm whales have from 50 to 55 vertebrae, and from twelve to fourteen ribs on either side, although the latter are not necessarily symmetrical, and the hindmost ribs do not connect with the vertebral column. Each of the flippers has seven carpals, and a variable number of phalanges in the digits, reportedly ranging from two in the first digit to as many as ten in the second digit. There is no true innominate bone, which is replaced by a sheet of dense connective tissue. The hyoid bone is unusually large, and presumably has a role in the whale's suction feeding.[12]


The pygmy sperm has between 20 and 32 teeth, all of which are set into the rostral part of the lower jaw.[14] Unusually, adults lack enamel due to a mutation in the enamelysin gene,[15] although enamel is present in very young individuals.[12]


Melon composition in K. breviceps[16]
Outer melon Inner melon Spermaceti organ
Lipid content (weight) 15-91% 74-94% 92-96%
Lipid composition
wax esters 8-46% 40-90% 84-99%
triglycerides 54-92% 10-69% 1-16%
Average carbon number
wax esters 32-35 29-32 28-29
triglycerides 47-51 41-46 45

Like other bursa.[18] The whale produces sound by moving air through the right nasal cavity, which includes a valvular structure, or "museau de singe", with a thickened vocal reed, functioning like the vocal cords of humans.


The stomach has three chambers. The first chamber, or forestomach, is non-glandular, and opens directly into the second, fundic chamber, which is lined by digestive glands. A narrow tube runs from the second to the third, or pyloric, stomach, which is also glandular, and connects, via a sphincter, to the duodenum. Although fermentation of food material apparently occurs in the small intestine, there is no caecum.[19]


The rostroventral dura of the brain contains a significant concentration of magnetite crystals, which suggests that K. breviceps can navigate by magnetoreception.[12]


Like all toothed whale, the pygmy sperm whale hunts prey by echolocation. The frequencies it uses are mostly ultrasonic,[16] peaking at around 125 kHz.[20]


Although firm details concerning pygmy sperm whale reproduction are limited, they are believed to mate from April to September in the southern hemisphere.[12] Gestation lasts eleven months and, unusually for cetaceans, the female gives birth to the calf head-first.[21] Newborn calves are about 1.2 metres (3 ft 11 in) in length, and are weaned at around one year of age.[12]


The whale makes very inconspicuous movements. It rises to the surface slowly, with little splash or blow, and will remain there motionless for some time. In Japan the whale was historically known as the "floating whale" because of this. Its dive is equally lacking in grand flourish - it simply drops out of view. The species has a tendency to back away from rather than approach boats. Breaching has been observed, but is not common.

Pygmy sperm whales are normally either solitary, or found in pairs[22] but have been seen in groups of up to six. Dives have been estimated to last an average of eleven minutes, although longer dives of up to 45 minutes have been reported.[12] The ultrasonic clicks of pygmy sperm whales range from 60 to 200 kHz, peaking at 125 kHz,[20] and the animals also make much lower frequency "cries" at 1 to 2 kHz.[23]

Analysis of stomach contents suggests that pygmy sperm whales feed primarily on cephalopods, most commonly including bioluminescent species found in midwater environments. The most common prey are reported to include glass squid, and lycoteuthid and ommastrephid squid, although the whales also consume other squid, and octopuses. They have also been reported to eat some deep-sea shrimps, but, compared with dwarf sperm whales, relatively few fish.[12]

Predators may include great white sharks[24] and killer whales.[25]

Pygmy sperm whales and dwarf sperm whales are unique among cetaceans in using a form of "ink" to evade predation in a manner similar to squid. Both species have a sac in the lower portion of their intestinal tract that contains up to 12 L of dark reddish brown fluid, which can be ejected to confuse or discourage potential predators.[26]

Population and distribution

Pygmy sperm whales are found throughout the tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.[12] However, they are rarely sighted at sea, so most data come from stranded animals - making a precise range and migration map difficult. They are believed to prefer off-shore waters, and are most frequently sighted in waters ranging from 400 to 1,000 metres (1,300 to 3,300 ft) in depth, especially where upwelling water produces local concentrations of zooplankton and animal prey.[27] Their status is usually described as rare, but occasional patches of higher density of strandings suggest it may be rather more common than previously supposed. The total population is unknown.

Fossils identified as belonging to Kogia breviceps have been recovered from Miocene deposits in Italy, as well as from Japan and southern Africa.[12]

Human interaction

Pygmy sperm whales have never been hunted on a wide scale. Land-based whalers have hunted them from Indonesia, Japan and the Lesser Antilles. Individuals have also been recorded killed in drift nets. Some stranded animals have been found with plastic bags in their stomachs - which may be a cause for concern. It is not known whether these activities are causing long-term damage to the survival of the species.

Pygmy sperm whales do not do well in captivity. The longest recorded survival in captivity is 21 months, and most captive individuals die within one month, mostly due to dehydration or dietary problems.[28]


The pygmy sperm whale is covered by the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS)[29] and the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS).[30] The species is further included in the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Conservation of the Manatee and Small Cetaceans of Western Africa and Macaronesia (Western African Aquatic Mammals MoU)[31] and the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region (Pacific Cetaceans MoU).[32]


  • MNZ MM002651, collected Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, no date data.

See also


  1. ^ The use of Order Cetartiodactyla, instead of Cetacea with Suborder Odontoceti, is favored by most evolutionary mammalogists working with molecular data [3][4][5][6] and is supported the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group[7] and by Taxonomy Committee [8] of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, the largest international association of marine mammal scientists in the world. See Cetartiodactyla and Marine mammal articles for further discussion.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Cetacean Species and Taxonomy.
  8. ^ "The Society for Marine Mammalogy's Taxonomy Committee List of Species and subspecies".
  9. ^ Handley, C. O. Jr. 1966. A synopsis of the genus Kogia (pygmy sperm whales). pp. 62-69 In: K. S. Norris (ed.), Whales, dolphins and porpoises. University of California Press, Berkeley
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j
  13. ^
  14. ^ Brian E. Bloodworth, Daniel K. Odell (2008). Kogia breviceps. Mammalian Species 819:1-12
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b c R., Karol; C., Litchfield; D., Caldwell; M., Caldwell (1978). Compositional topography of melon and spermaceti organ lipids in the pygmy sperm whale Kogia breviceps: Implications for echolocation. Marine Biology , Volume 47 (2)
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b Ken Marten (2000). Ultrasonic analysis of pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) and Hubbs’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon carlhubbsi) clicks. Aquatic Mammals 2000, 26.1, 45–48
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^ Official website of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas
  30. ^ Official website of the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area
  31. ^ Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Conservation of the Manatee and Small Cetaceans of Western Africa and Macaronesia
  32. ^ Official webpage of the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region

Further reading

  • Pygmy and Dwarf Sperm Whales by Donald F. McAlpine in Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals pp. 1007–1009 ISBN 978-0-12-551340-1
  • Whales Dolphins and Porpoises, Mark Carwardine, Dorling Kindersley Handbooks, ISBN 0-7513-2781-6
  • National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World, Reeves, Stewart, Clapham and Powell, ISBN 0-375-41141-0

External links

  • UMMZ Skull photos
  • [1] Photo of skull
  • Max Newman's Pygmy Sperm Whale Research Paper
  • dolphin rescues Pygmy Sperm whales
  • Arkive
  • Voices in the Sea - Sounds of the Pygmy sperm Whale
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