Humpback Whales: Lunge Feeding

Written by on October 12, 2012 in Marine Life
Humpback whale breaching.

Humpback whale breaching. Photo credit: NOAA.

A group of researchers have recently determined how humpback whales capture and consume their prey, based on the way they swim.

By attaching tags to five humpbacks and recording high resolution data of the depth, acceleration, and magnetic orientation of 479 dives, they were able to learn more about the whales’ lunging tactics.

They attached tags behind the dorsal fin of three of the humpbacks to record stroke patterns.  The tracking device was attached closer to the head on the other two whales in order to measure head movements.

By analyzing acceleration patterns, Malene Simon from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources noticed that as the whales initiate a dive, they first accelerated upward, then slowed down, and continued to glide.  Based on the speed of each state, the team concluded that “the mouth must already be open and the buccal (mouth) pouch inflated enough to create a higher drag when high stroking rates…occur within in lunges.”

The whales continue to accelerate once their mouth is open in order to stretch the pouch as much as possible.  Once the pouch is fully inflated, they slow down and swallow their prey–krill and capelin–over a 46 second period.  This pattern continues, in a series of lunges, until they are done feeding.

Humpback whales.

Humpback whales. Photo credit: NOAA.

To learn more:

Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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