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Blue whales can eat half a million calories in a single mouthful


The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived. Ironically, it sustains its massive bulk by eating some of the smallest creatures in the ocean – krill. A foraging whale lunges into a swarm of these shrimp-like animals, accelerating to high speed with its mouth open at a right angle. Pushed back by the rush of water, its mouth expands and its tongue (itself the size of an elephant) inverts to create more room. The whale engulfs up to 110 tonnes of water and any krill within is filtered out and swallowed.

There’s every reason to think that filtering out small prey is an incredibly efficient way of feeding. The largest fish, both living (the whale shark and basking shark) and extinct (Leedsichthys), are all filter-feeders. And the biggest of the whales – the blue and fin – both use this technique. But no one has ever put the reputed efficiency of filter-feeding to the test, by calculating how much energy a blue whale spends on its lunges and how much it gets in return. Jeremy Goldbogen at the University of British Columbia is the first.

Goldbogen tagged 265 blue whales off the coast of California and Mexico, attaching recording devices to their backs when they surface. The data-loggers recorded the whales’ position, their acceleration, and the noise and pressure of the surrounding water. The noise was important – by measuring the sound of water rushing past the animal, Goldbergen could work out how fast it was travelling.

In total, he managed to record over 650 feeding lunges. On each one, the whale accelerates to a top speed of 8 miles per hour in less than a minute. If that seems low, bear in mind that this is an animal that weighs 180 tonnes; for comparison, Michael Phelps swam the 100m butterfly at a measly 4.4mph. Every attempt costs a huge amount of energy, around 770 to 1900 calories. Worse still, the water that rushes into the whale’s mouth produces so much drag that it grinds to a virtual halt. To lunge again, the whale needs to build up speed from a standstill, and it will do so around three or four times on a single ten-minute dive.

Nonetheless, when Goldbogen plugged the data from his recorders into a simulation of a feeding whale, he found that the lunge is staggeringly efficient. Despite the massive outlay in energy, the whale easily recoups anywhere from 6 to 240 times that amount, depending on how big it is and how tightly packed its krill targets are.

If a big whale attacks a particularly dense swarm, it can swallow up to 500 kilograms of krill, eating 457,000 calories in a single monster mouthful and getting back almost 200 times the amount it burned in the attempt. A smaller whale lunging at a sparse collection of krill would only get around 8,000 calories, but that’s still 8 times more than what it burned. Even when Goldbogen accounted for the energy needed to dive in search of prey, the whales still regained 3 to 90 times as much energy as they spent.

For comparison, sea otters get around 4 calories for every one they burn, and Weddell seals get around 10. If blue whales happen across a particularly thick glut of prey, their feeding efficiency is about ten times greater than for any other sea-going mammal.

All of these record-breaking numbers are probably a pale shadow of the true efficiency of a hunting whale, because he was being fairly conservative about the krill in his simulations. Photographs of krill suggest that these animals can gather in swarms a hundred (or even a thousand) times greater than those that Goldbogen used. If a whale swam into one of these swarms with mouth agape, it might even recover 1000 times more energy than it spent.

An efficient lifestyle is a big boon to the blue whale. Every year, it migrates from rich feeding areas close to the pole to relatively poorer mating areas towards the equator. If it’s to survive, it needs to feed as effectively as it can during the summer to build up a thick layer of blubbery reserves to fuel it through the harsh food-starved winter.

Reference: Journal of Experimental Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1242/jeb.048157

Update: For more on Goldbogen’s work, you have to read this great post by Carl Zimmer, where he explains why giant whales are a bit like parachutes.

More on whales:

If the citation link isn’t working, read why here

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15 thoughts on “Blue whales can eat half a million calories in a single mouthful

  1. Even given the size of that mouth, half a million calories is still rather impressive – but I’m even more impressed by how little energy it spends in comparison.
    I’ll try to remember this next time I eat junk-food… although to do things ‘the whale way’ I’d probably have to think of running back to Portugal (from Germany) for Xmas, instead of sitting on a plane – dang, there goes another great idea!

  2. [rant]
    Yikes, calories. Or Calories? Or kcals? Or gramcals? Or foodcals?
    That paper is all in beautiful SI units. OK, your converted it, so the public can relate to it. But, but..

    I involuntarily start to twitch when I read catchy headlines like this. You never know, whether the author got his units right and consistent. Especially when the author’s numbers are compared to referenced numbers (e.g. whale vs otter).

    Sorry, I spent too much time in my life on data formulated in archaic units. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calorie. If you recovered, check out the same wikipedia page in another language you understand.

  3. @Chris, I’m pretty sure 500kg of krill is should easily be 500,000 food calories. I would also assume the dive energy units are the same as the food energy units, but that is an assumption…

  4. This may be a stupid question, but I wonder how much non-krill a whale incidentally consumes? I would think that learning how to eat squid, jellyfish, or fish might be helpful to their survival in oceans that are warming and becoming more acidic?

  5. Re: units – I converted all the kilojoules values into “calories”, meaning kcals/foodcals. You can multiply all the numbers by 4.2 to get the values in kJ if that is your wish.

  6. At first I thought the picture was an X-ray or sonar image of a whale. Looked like it’s skeleton. However after looking some more I think it’s just a conventional overhead photo, right?

    You know, I think I may have only ever seen pictures of parts of these creatures. Usually from a surface vantage point, with the whale itself surfacing. They are sssoooooo huge!

  7. I wonder.. how does human society compare?

    Society, because many individuals need to spend exactly 0 kJ to get their food, but some energy still needs to be spent (by machines and factories, for example).

  8. “Goldbogen tagged 265 blue whales off the coast of California and Mexico, attaching recording devices to their backs when they surface. ”

    If you’re ever tempted to dismiss the hard work involved in some branches of science, just consider the implications of this casual sentence!

  9. Indeed! To put that number in context, the IUCN site says that the global population of blue whales is anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000. This means that Goldbogen tagged anywhere from 1.1-2.6% of all the blue whales in the world.

  10. sir,
    the scientists who are do the experiments on blue whales ,have no fear when they are going under the sea for searching their moves and habits.while taking the photographs of whales they don’t respond by seeing the photographers?why?
    generally when see the mankind they generally attack,but they don’t respond under the sea?why?

  11. The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived.

    I could totally hear Sir David Attenborough’s voice when I read this. One of my (many) favourite Sir David clips is here.

    His boyish enthusiasm and excitement in the boat–around 2:30 mark–tells you this guy is eternally young.

  12. Do You have an answer to “Why do you think an animal as large as the blue whale has evolved to feed on such small prey? Thanks

  13. I’m nine years old. I love whales! They’re my favorite animal. I know a lot about them. My mom even made me a whale shirt with nine whales on it! Today I found out that blue whales eat half a million calories.Wow!That’s more calories than a human can eat!No wonder a whale like that could grow so big. Oh and I forgot to tell you my mom made me two immense stuffed animal whales, a bucket full of whales and sharks,and a coffee mug with the nine whales on it.

  14. @zackoz and @Ed Yong,

    I’m a scientist myself, and I must admit that I did just breeze by the “tagged 265 blue whales” statement with nary a thought to the work involved. From the journal article: “Tagging operations occurred between 2002 and 2007 for blue whales” during the summer and fall months, and report the dive data for 38 of them.

    As for the Calories, using fitday.com/foods calculator for steamed or boiled shrimp (a rough comparator, “krill” gave no results):

    ~692,000 Calories
    ~102,000 Calories from fat
    2 kg of saturated fat
    ~2 kg of cholesterol
    2.9 kg sodium
    113 kg of protein

    Thanks to Brian Dunning of skeptoid.com for pointing out this blog!

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