Why whales are big but not bigger: Physiological drivers and ecological limits in the age of ocean giants

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  13 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6471, pp. 1367-1372
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9044

It's the prey that matters

Although many people think of dinosaurs as being the largest creatures to have lived on Earth, the true largest known animal is still here today—the blue whale. How whales were able to become so large has long been of interest. Goldbogen et al. used field-collected data on feeding and diving events across different types of whales to calculate rates of energy gain (see the Perspective by Williams). They found that increased body size facilitates increased prey capture. Furthermore, body-size increase in the marine environment appears to be limited only by prey availability.

Science, this issue p. 1367; see also p. 1316


The largest animals are marine filter feeders, but the underlying mechanism of their large size remains unexplained. We measured feeding performance and prey quality to demonstrate how whale gigantism is driven by the interplay of prey abundance and harvesting mechanisms that increase prey capture rates and energy intake. The foraging efficiency of toothed whales that feed on single prey is constrained by the abundance of large prey, whereas filter-feeding baleen whales seasonally exploit vast swarms of small prey at high efficiencies. Given temporally and spatially aggregated prey, filter feeding provides an evolutionary pathway to extremes in body size that are not available to lineages that must feed on one prey at a time. Maximum size in filter feeders is likely constrained by prey availability across space and time.

View Full Text

Stay Connected to Science