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Sperm whale

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The largest toothed predator stripped to the bones

This skeleton is from a large male sperm whale. The bones give a sense of the whale’s size – the largest toothed predator on the planet. Globally, sperm whales are the most widespread of whale species. 

At the exhibition

Introduce the idea of skeletons to students with reference to the sperm whale skeletons in the exhibition. Explore the immediate area, then discuss the following questions and topics.

Questions for 5 to 10 year olds

  • Why is the skeleton an important part of the body? Can you see any differences between these two skeletons? If so, what are they?
  • How do you think these huge creatures died?
  • How many bones can you count?

Questions for 10 years old and over

  • What is the purpose of a skeleton?
  • Make comparisons between a human and a whale skeleton. What is similar? What is different?
  • Feel your arm from the shoulder to the hand. How many bones can you count? Which of your arm bones are similar to those in a whale’s fin?
  • Where are the tail bones?
  • Sperm whales have very large heads. What is the purpose of having such a big nose?

Teacher's notes

Scientists find out important information from studying an animal’s skeleton. For example, the sperm whale’s skeleton reveals a thin, lower jaw that opens wider than expected and contains lots of impressive teeth. This is interesting because their teeth aren’t used for eating – the whale sucks prey into its mouth. Male sperm whales appear to use their teeth mostly for fighting other males.

Note the skeleton’s large skull. The sperm whale gets its name from the liquid waxes and oils – the spermaceti organ – in its head. This organ is part of a complex system of sound production in the nose of the whale.

The skeleton shows the whale’s massive ribs. The ribs support and protect the core internal organs, as they do in humans and other mammals. The ribs of whales are angled backwards and can move more freely than terrestrial mammals. For example, the chest compresses to help the animal dive to great depths.

Related classroom activities

Challenge for the students

Compare and contrast a whale skeleton to a human skeleton

Before visiting the exhibition

Research and investigate the purpose of a skeleton in mammals.

Draw a picture of a human skeleton and name some of the main bones and some of the main groups of bones.

Calculate the mass that the human skeleton takes up as compared to the whole body.

Discuss movement and restrictions of movement in a human skeleton focussing on the direction that the joins in a skeleton move.

During the visit to the exhibition

Investigate the sperm whale skeletons.

Count the bones in the skeletons.

Draw a sketch of the skeleton, naming some of the main bones.

Discuss the joins in the whale skeleton and the movement or restriction of movement in the whale skeleton.

Compare the arm bone of a human skeleton and the fin or flipper bones in whales, what are some of the similarities and the differences?

After the visit to the exhibition

With the preliminary sketches during your visit use these as a basis to create a large poster naming some of the bones in a whale skeleton, and the purpose of the skeleton.

Compare the size of the nose of a Sperm whale and apply some of the measurements to a human body, eg the sperm whale has a nose that is 1/3 of its body mass. Create posters with human noses 1/3 of their bodily mass.

Other suggested learning experiences

  • Make a model of a whale skeleton naming some of the bones
  • Create a articulated clay skeleton with each student identifying and creating a different piece of the skeleton
  • Compare toothed whale skeletons to baleen whale skeletons.
  • Identify the differences and similarities between creatures that live in water and on land