What is baleen?
There are two types of whales in the world’s oceans, Toothed whales (Odontoceti) and Baleen whales (Mysticeti). As the name says toothed whales have teeth and baleen whales have baleen. The word baleen comes from the Latin word Bālaena, which is related to the Greek word Phalaina and means whale. There are four families of baleen whales with a total of 15 species. “What is baleen?” Baleen is a form of stiff hair made of keratin (human hair and nails are made of keratin).
“How does baleen work?” Baleen is a filter-feeder system where the whales will open their mouths under water taking in water and food (krill or fish). The whale push out the water through the baleen then sweeps its tongue across the baleen to swallow the food. The baleen is arranged in plates across the upper jaw of the whales and varies in size (0.5 to 3.5m and up to 90kg) between different whale species depending on how they use them. Bowhead whales have the longest baleen of all the Baleen whales.
During whaling (hunting of whales) the baleen was called whalebones and was used to make numerous flexible items e.g. collar stiffeners, buggy whips, parasol ribs and corset stays. Most of these items are now made in plastic or fiberglass but in a lot of museums you can still see the great use of whale baleen.