the end of the 19th century it was baleen, rather than oil, that
was the primary product sought by the Greenland whalers. Confusingly,
baleen was always known as whale-bone by the whalers and by those
who used it in manufacture. It is not bone, but a derivative of
whales eat small, planktonic crustaceans such as copepods and krill,
or small shoaling fish including herring and sardines. These whales
have no teeth, instead, they feed by straining their food from the
sea using a series of baleen plates that are made of keratin,
the same material that forms your hair and nails and the hooves
and horns of cows.
baleen plates hang from the upper jaws of the whale, spaced 2 cms
apart and at right angles to the long axis of the jaw. The outer
edge of each plate is smooth but the inner edge becomes frayed into
bristles that form a matted sieve.
the whale is feeding, water is taken in through the open mouth and
expelled out through the baleen plates. Any food taken in with the
water is trapped on the baleen bristles, removed with the help of
the tongue and then swallowed.
number of plates varies from 300-350 pairs in different species
and the length varies greatly from less than half a metre to over
4 metres. Whales that feed on small crustaceans have baleen plates
with very fine bristle while those that feed on larger crustacea,
such as krill,
or on fish, have very coarse bristles.
is strong, light, flexible and hard wearing, attributes that make
it useful to humans as a construction material, and which reflect
the microstructure of the baleen. In
cross section, a baleen plate consists of 3-4 layers of horny tubes,
which become thinner towards the centre and which are embedded in
a fibrous matrix. This is clear even to the naked eye but is best
seen under the scanning electron microscope (S.E.M.).
tubes run the length of the plate and emerge as the hair-like bristles
on the inner edge. The plates are constantly worn away at the free
ends but are replenished by continual growth at the root, just as
is our own hair.
system of tubes combines minimum weight with maximum strength. A
hollow cylinder has much the same degree of rigidity as does a solid
one but, of course, the weight is much less.
plates, light, strong, inert, highly flexible, easily cut into strips,
and capable of being moulded into complex shapes, have found many
commercial uses in past times. The most profitable, by far, was
the manufacture of fashion items, particularly corsets. However,
fashion is a fickle business and when not needed for clothing baleen
was put to much more prosaic uses including chimney sweep brushes
and upholstery stuffing. A Mr Sevey, trading in Boston, Mass., in
the late 19th century offered no less than 53
items made from whale bone. (In case, after perusing Mr
Sevey's list of merchandise, you are wondering what a Probang is,
or was, try the Online
Oxford English Dictionary!).
photography at ecoscope.com
Baleen plate, sei whale
Humpback whale showing baleen
Humpback whale feeding on herring
Gorman & Kevin Mackenzie
S.E.M. Cross section of a baleen plate
İAberdeen University/Martyn Gorman
Blue whale baleen - the bristles