Sperm Whale

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Charles W. Potter, B.S.

Charles Potter standing in the foreground as Bill McLelland, another cetacean expert, sits atop a stranded sperm whale off the coast of North Carolina

Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

Charles Potter came to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the early 1970s after finishing his undergraduate degree in zoology from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He is responsible for supervision of collection management activities relating to marine mammals, including accessions, specimen preparation, cataloging, specimen installations, curation, loans, information requests, and assisting visitors. Together with James Mead, Potter helped establish a national marine mammal stranding network that is now administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Since Potter and Mead have been at the Smithsonian, the marine mammal collection has become the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind. Potter’s field work has taken him from the North Pacific to the tropics and the Antarctic. With colleagues at the Fisheries Service, he has been actively working to reduce the incidental take of marine mammals in commercial fisheries. In addition to his duties as the collection manager for marine mammals, he is working on bottlenose dolphin zoogeography and feeding ecology. Most recently he has been working with nations of the lower Caribbean to establish a multinational response to marine mammal events.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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I just learned something new! Sperm whales have teeth I thought that all whales had baleen but some do not. Cool!
Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are unusual for toothed whales in having just two teeth, one of which is a long tusk
Courtesy of Glenn Williams, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

About Toothed Whales (Superfamily Odontoceti): Senses

Toothed whales have as few as one pair to more than 100 pairs of teeth for eating fish, squid, or other animals. Most toothed whales have good eyesight, but they also use sonar to catch prey. By emitting pulses of sound and interpreting their echoes (echolocation), they get a picture of what's around them. Toothed whales have no vocal cords; sounds are made in nasal passages under their blowhole. A slit-like opening is slapped shut to make a clicking sound, after which a fatty organ on the top of their head (the melon) focuses the sound. Oil-filled cavities in the lower jaw receive the echoed sound and send it to the ears. Because water transmits sound waves better than air, toothed whales need special adaptations to pinpoint the direction of a sound. Their middle-ear bones are detached from the skull and buffered with foam to better isolate sounds that may alert them to a nearby fish.

Whales such as this humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) sometimes lunge out of the water in what is known as "breaching"
Courtesy of Wanetta Ayers, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain


About Dolphins, Porpoises, and Whales (Infraorder Cetacea): Locomotion

All cetaceans are aquatic, and they swim by pumping their tail up and down, using paddle-like flippers for steering. The tail fins (flukes) are flexible, with no bones, and attached to the body with cartilage. Huge back muscles power the tail, making them powerful swimmers. Cetaceans are also good divers, some able to stay underwater for hours and reach depths of hundreds of meters. As air breathers, they must hold their breath to dive, yet their lungs are small and compress to an even smaller size during a dive. The stored air is pushed into their windpipe, where a thickened lining keeps it out of contact with the rest of the body. Sealing off the air prevents a buildup of nitrogen (from air) in the bloodstream, which protects cetaceans from the "bends" that human divers are in danger of when they submerge. During diving, oxygen reserves stored in special molecules (myoglobin) supply oxygen to cetaceans' bodies.