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Sperm Whale Teeth: Everything You Need to Know

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Sperm Whale Teeth Sperm Whale In Ocean
Sperm whales are the largest toothed predators on Earth.

© bekirevren/Shutterstock.com

The sperm whale is the world's largest toothed predator and the largest toothed whale. They belong to the order Cetaceae, which is further subdivided into baleen whales such as humpbacks, and toothed whales such as sperm whales and dolphins. Toothed whales are special because unlike baleen whales – which use their mouths to filter small animals from their food, toothed whales hunt their prey.

But what exactly do sperm whales prey on, and how do they use their teeth to eat? Here, we learn more about these fascinating teeth, their purpose, how scientists use them for aging and DNA research, and the unique art form created especially for these incredible teeth.

What's so special about the teeth of a sperm whale?

Whale Teeth - Sperm Whale Teeth
The lower jaw of the sperm whale has as many as 60 conical teeth

©Steven Giles/Shutterstock.com

Sperm whales are odontocetes, meaning toothed whales. Unlike humans – who have four types of teeth (incisors, canines, premolars and molars), sperm whales are monoprodonts, which means they have only one type of tooth.

This single tooth is banana-shaped and slightly curved towards the sperm whale's body. It can grow up to eight inches in length and weigh more than two pounds. Sperm whales have 36-60 teeth – all in their lower jaw (mandible). Sperm whales have very few teeth in their upper jaws. Instead, their upper jaw is filled with sockets where the bottom teeth fit.

peculiar mandible

Sperm whales are known for their large heads. Sperm whales' heads can reach nearly 20 feet in length, and their mandibles are about as long. But what's so special about a sperm whale's jaw?

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Well, the sperm whale's mandible has evolved so that each row of teeth is not separated by the tongue, but actually next to each other. The tongue of a sperm whale is actually short and fat, and it sits very far back in the mouth. Much of the length on either side of the jaw is fused together, which gives the sperm whale's mandible its distinctive rod-like shape.

What do sperm whales do with their teeth?

Sperm whales have large, terrifying teeth. But with such a strange jaw, and only lower teeth, what are they for?

Because sperm whales spend most of their lives diving into the deep sea for food, it is difficult for scientists to observe their behavior directly. By looking at things like stomach contents and feces, they can get very close to what these giants ate and how they caught prey with their teeth.

Sperm whales mainly eat squid (including giant squid). But since healthy sperm whales have been found with broken jaws or completely worn teeth, scientists believe their teeth play little role in feeding. Instead, it is thought that the sperm whale simply sucked the squid into its mouth. They guide their prey down their throats with their powerful tongues.

Bucket teeth

So, if sperm whales aren't using those big teeth to eat, what are they using them for?

Based on studies of raking scars on adult sperm whales, scientists think these deep-sea giants use their jaws aggressively — at each other. Rake marks are especially prevalent on large bull sperm whales, which compete with each other. Whether sperm whales compete for territory, mates, or dominance is unknown, though. One thing is for sure though; sperm whales love to suck their food down and save their teeth for each other.

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judging age with teeth

A sperm whale mother and her calf off the coast of Mauritius.
Sperm whales have only one set of permanent teeth, which they use for life

© Gabriel Barathieu / CC BY-SA 2.0 – License

Sperm whales have a long upbringing; calves stay with their mothers for more than a decade. Despite their age, sperm whales are monoprodonts – meaning they have no baby teeth and retain only one set of permanent teeth throughout their lives.

As they grow, their teeth get bigger in layers. A Teeth consist of dentin at the root, and hard cementum covers the dentin below the gum line. Above the gum line, dentin is covered by enamel. Sperm whale tooth enamel is very hard and has layers.

Like reading tree rings, scientists can tell the approximate age of a sperm whale by examining the layers. The more layers – the older the whale.

Scientists can learn more from sperm whale teeth than just their age. Using new DNA extraction and analysis methods, scientists can actually trace the mitochondrial family tree of sperm whales. This is especially important today as sperm whale populations have been greatly reduced.

Because sperm whales have been hunted heavily in the past, their tusks (a type of ivory) are often collected. Today, these teeth are housed in museums and private collections around the world. All of these specimens provide scientists with a slew of material to test. These historic teeth, once tested, will allow scientists to build a complete context about the historical genetic diversity of sperm whales.

DNA extraction might seem like an odd use for teeth. But sperm whale teeth have long been put to more interesting uses.

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Scrimshaw: carved teeth

Scrimshaw is the technique of painting or carving scenes on ivory, especially on the teeth of sperm whales. It was first invented by the Inuit people in the northern hemisphere. This practice was later adopted by sailors on whaling ships, who had plenty of teeth to use.

Finished works of art were popular in the 19th and 20th centuries and are often held in private collections. Today, it is illegal to import or sell whale ivory, including teeth, unless you have special permission. This is due to the illegal ivory trade, and the consequent poaching of endangered animals such as sperm whales.

Whatever the purpose—whether as art, a weapon against other sperm whales, or as a tool to learn more about this enigmatic species—people are fascinated by sperm whales and their unique teeth.


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Interesting Animals - Sperm Whales
The blowhole of the sperm whale is located on the left side of the head, which is rare in cetaceans.

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about the author

Brandi Allred

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She has degrees in English and Anthropology and writes horror, science fiction and fantasy stories in her spare time.

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