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Why are whales big, but not bigger?


Both toothed and baleen (filter-feeding) whales are among the largest animals ever to exist. Blue whales, which measure up to 100 feet (30 meters) long and can weigh over 150 tons, are the largest animals in the history of life on Earth.

Although whales have existed on this planet for some 50 million years, they only evolved to be truly gigantic in the past five million years or so. Researchers have little idea what limits their enormous size. What is the pace of life at this scale, and what are the consequences of being so big?

As scientists who study ecologyphysiology and evolution, we are interested in this question because we want to know the limits to life on Earth, and what allows these animals to live at such extremes. In a newly published study, we show that whale size is limited by the largest whales’ very efficient feeding strategies, which enable them to take in a lot of calories compared to the energy they burn while foraging. MORE

Header image: A humpback whale approaches scientists in the Antarctic. Credit: Goldbogen Laboratory, Stanford University / Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing, taken under permit ACA / NMFS #14809, CC BY-ND.

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