Physeter macrocephalus   Linnaeus,  1758 (Whale)
Organism information awaits expert curation
Class: Mammalia

Image copyrights: Smithsonian Institution

Size: Male 18-20 m; female 12-13 m.

Weight: Male: 45-70 tons; Female: 20 tons.

Color: The overall color of the Sperm Whale can be dark brown, grey or black. The belly and front of the head may be light grey.

The Sperm Whale, the largest of the toothed whales, has a distinct and unusual shape. The Sperm Whale males grow much larger than the females. Its head is huge, making up1/4th to 1/3rd of the total length. This proportion is much higher for males than females. The snout is blunted and squarish. It may project up to 1.5 m beyond the tip of the lower jaw. The lower jaw is very narrow and weak, and disproportionately small. On the back of this animal is a clear hump, but no fin. This hump is located about 2/3rd of the way back from the tip of the snout, and behind this are several smaller humps or knuckles. The dorsal humps and knuckles are clearly seen when a Sperm Whale arches to begin a dive. The skin may appear wrinkled, especially from behind the head. The flippers are short, but the tail is large and deeply notched. 18-25 sturdy conical teeth are present on the lower jaw. These fit into sockets in the upper jaw, which is generally toothless. The blowhole is located at the front of the head on the left. The enormous (up to 1/3 of total body length), box-like head of the sperm whale sets it apart from all other species.The blowhole slit is S-shaped and positioned forward on the left side of the head. There are 18-28 functional teeth on each side of the lower jaws, but the upper teeth are few, weak and nonfunctional. The lower teeth fit into sockets in the upper jaw. The gullet of is the largest among cetaceans; it is in fact the only gullet large enough to accomodate a human. The dorsal fin is replaced by a hump and a series of longitudinal ridges on the posterior part of the back. The flippers are quite small, approximately 200 cm. long. Tail flukes are 400-450 cm in width. The blubber layer of the sperm whale is quite thick, up to 35 cm. Both sexes have white in the genital and anal regions and on the lower jaws.

The Sperm Whale’s skin is up to 35 cm thick. This is the thickest skin of any existing animal. When the animal surfaces after a deep dive, it exhales explosively, and the sound is audible almost half a kilometer away. The distinctive spout is generally bushy and usually less than 2.4 m high. It tilts forward and to the left of the animal at a 45° angle.

Females sexually mature at 8-11 years and males at 10 years, although males do not mate until they are 25-27 years old due to social status. Gestation is 14-16 months and nursing 2 years.

Synonym (s)
Catodon (Meganeuron) krefftii Gray, 1865
Catodon australis Wall, 1851
Catodon colneti Gray, 1850
Catodon macrocephalus Lacepede, 1804
Cetus cylindricus Billberg, 1828
Delphinus bayeri Risso, 1826
Phiseter cylindricus Bonnaterre, 1789
Physeter andersonii Borowski, 1780
Physeter australasiensis Desmoulins, 1822
Physeter australis Gray, 1846
Physeter catodon Linnaeus, 1758
Physeter maximus G. Cuvier, 1798
Physeter microps Linnaeus, 1758
Physeter microps rectidentatus Kerr, 1792
Physeter novaeangliae Borowski, 1780
Physeter orthodon Lacepede, 1804
Physeter tursio Linnaeus, 1758
Physeterus sulcatus Lacepede, 1818
Tursio vulgaris Fleming, 1822

Common Name (s)
• Sperm Whale (English)
• Ratchatha thimingalam (Tamil)
• Spermacet Whale (English)
• Trumpo (English)
• Great Sperm-whale (English)
• Thimingalam
• Great Sperm Whale
Economic Importance and Threats
Importance:  Commercial
(Its head contains 3-4 tons of spermaceti, a substance valued as a lubricant for fine machinery and a component of automatic transmission fluid. It is also used in making ointments and fine, smokeless candles. The sperm whale has also been a target of commercial whaling. Its meat was not generally consumed, except in Japan. Teeth were often used as a medium for the artistic form of engraving and carving known as scrimshaw. The most important product obtained from it is the oil, once used as fuel for lamps and now used as a lubricant and as the base for skin creams and cosmetics. A gummy substance called ambergris forms in the large intestines of sperm whales and can be found floating on the surface of the water or washed ashore once it is expelled. It believed to have medicinal qualities, but it is now used in connection with manufacture of perfumes, based on the fact that when it is exposed to air, it hardens and acquires a sweet, earthy smell.)

Habitat:  Demersal, Open Sea
Prey:  Fish and squid
IUCN Status:  Vulnerable


• Bay of Bengal (Lat: 15) (Long: 90) INDIA
• Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Off Nicobar Island INDIA (Record: 03/1920-04/1920)
• Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andaman Islands INDIA (Record: 03/1920-04/1920)
• Lakshadweep, Kalpeni Island INDIA (Record: 25/02/1971)
• Tamil Nadu, Mahabalipuram INDIA (Record: 12/4/1980)
• Tamil Nadu, Krusadai Island INDIA (Record: 30/04/1980)
• Tamil Nadu, Tranquebar (Lat: 11) (Long: 79.13) INDIA (Record: 08/06/1982)
• Lakshadweep, Cheriyam Island INDIA (Record: 11/1982)
• Lakshadweep, Chettlatt Island INDIA (Record: 07/08/1984, 19/11/1986, 15/08/1990)
• Tamil Nadu, Hare Island INDIA (Record: 05/11/1986)
• Tamil Nadu, Kasimedu INDIA (Record: 08/03/1988)
• INDIA (Record: 1800-2000)
• Gujarat, Jakhau Coast INDIA (Record: 1998)
• Tamil Nadu, Gulf of Mannar INDIA
• Tamil Nadu, Chennai INDIA (Record: 26/10/2004)
• Tamil Nadu, Samnathanpettai INDIA (Record: 18/12/1988)

Literature Source(s)
  • Agarwal, VC and Alfred, JRB (1999) Handbook: Whales, dolphins and dugong from Indian seas ZSI, Calcutta 150 pp Available at - NCL, Pune
  • James, PSBR and Soundararajan, R (1981) An osteological study on the sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus from Indian Ocean Indian Journal of Fisheries 28(1-2) 217-232
  • Alfred, JRB; Das, AK and Sanyal, AK (Eds.) (1998) Faunal diversity in India ZSI, Calcutta 1-497 Available at - NCL, Pune
  • Baldwin, R (1995) Whale and dolphin research in the UAE Tribulus 5(2)
  • Whitehead Hal and Kahn Benjamin (1992) Temporal and geographic variation in the social structure of female sperm whales Canadian Journal of Zoology 70(11) 2145-2149 Available at - Zoological Records
  • Sathasivam K (2004) Marine mammals of India Universities Press(India) private limited, Hyderabad, India 180 pp Available at - NIO, Goa
  • Society for the Management of European Biodiversity Data (2009) World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) Available at -
  • (2003) IUCN Red list of threatened species Available at -
  • Marine Biological Station, Chennai, Tamil Nadu (2003) Checklist of marine fauna of Tamil Nadu Department of Environment, Government of Tamil Nadu Available at -
  • Dr. Ramesh, R; Dr. Nammalwar, P and Dr. Gowri, VS (2008) Database on coastal information of Tamil Nadu Report Submitted to Environmental Information System (ENVIS) Centre, Department of Environment, Government of Tamil Nadu Institute for Ocean Management, Anna University, Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Available at -
  • Kumaran, PL (2002) Marine mammal research in India: A review and critique of the methods Current Science Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore 83(10) 1210-1220 Available at -
  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Available at -
  • Jayasankar, P; Anoop, B; Rajgopalan, M; Yousuf, KMM; Reynold, P; Krishnakumar, PK; Afsal, VV and Krishnan, AA (2009) Indian Efforts on the Inventorization of Marine Mammal Species for their Conservation and Management Asian Fisheries Science Asian Fisheries Society, Manila, Philippines 22 143-155 Available at -
  • Pillai, PKM and Augustine, SK (2000) A code list of common marine living resources of the Indian seas CMFRI Special Publication No.12 CMFRI 1-115 Available at -
  • Padmanaban P and Dinesh K.P (2011) A checklist of Marine Mammals of India Marine Biology Reginal centre, Zoological Survey of India 4pp Available at -
  • Jefferson, TA; Leatherwood, S and Webber, MA (2006) Marine mammals of the world World biodiversity database Available at -

Page last updated on:2012-11-07

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