Physeter macrocephalus - Linnaeus, 1758
Sperm Whale
Synonym(s): Physeter catodon Linnaeus, 1766
Taxonomic Status: Accepted
Related ITIS Name(s): Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758 (TSN 180488)
French Common Names: cachalot macrocéphale
Spanish Common Names: Cachalote
Unique Identifier: ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.101043
Element Code: AMAGC01010
Informal Taxonomy: Animals, Vertebrates - Mammals - Whales and Dolphins
 
Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus
Animalia Craniata Mammalia Cetacea Physeteridae Physeter
Genus Size: A - Monotypic genus
Check this box to expand all report sections:
Concept Reference
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Concept Reference: Jones, J. K., Jr., R. S. Hoffman, D. W. Rice, C. Jones, R. J. Baker, and M. D. Engstrom. 1992a. Revised checklist of North American mammals north of Mexico, 1991. Occasional Papers, The Museum, Texas Tech University, 146:1-23.
Concept Reference Code: B92JON01NAUS
Name Used in Concept Reference: Physeter macrocephalus
Taxonomic Comments: There is disagreement over the correct specific name. Linnaeus used both macrocephalus and catodon in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae. Leatherwood and Reeves (1983) and many other authors have used the name P. macrocephalus. Recently, Schevill (1986) argued that catodon is the correct name, whereas Holthius (1987) responded that macrocephalus is correct. Jones et al. (1986) stated that the change to catodon was unjustified because it was based on a misinterpretation of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Jones et al. (1992), Baker et al. (2003), and Rice (1998) used P. macrocephalus as the name for the sperm whale. Mead and Brownell (in Wilson and Reeder 1993, 2005) and Nowak (1991) used the name P. catodon.
Conservation Status
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NatureServe Status

Global Status: G3G4
Global Status Last Reviewed: 04Apr2016
Global Status Last Changed: 15Nov1996
Ranking Methodology Used: Ranked by inspection
Rounded Global Status: G3 - Vulnerable
Reasons: Occurs widely in all oceans; protected by international and national regulations; total population is large (several hundred thousand) but trend is difficult to determine; threatened by general deterioration of marine ecosystem.
Nation: United States
National Status: NU (19Feb1997)
Nation: Canada
National Status: N5B,N5N,N5M (01Jan2018)

U.S. & Canada State/Province Status
Due to latency between updates made in state, provincial or other NatureServe Network databases and when they appear on NatureServe Explorer, for state or provincial information you may wish to contact the data steward in your jurisdiction to obtain the most current data. Please refer to our Distribution Data Sources to find contact information for your jurisdiction.
United States Alaska (S3S4), California (SNR), Florida (SNR), Georgia (SNR), Hawaii (SNR), Maine (SNR), Maryland (SNA), Massachusetts (S1), Mississippi (SNR), New York (SNA), North Carolina (SNA), Oregon (SNA), South Carolina (S1), Texas (S1), Washington (SNA)
Canada British Columbia (S3S4)

Other Statuses

U.S. Endangered Species Act (USESA): LE: Listed endangered (02Jun1970)
Comments on USESA: Listed Endangered as Physeter catodon. In a petition to recognize the Gulf of Mexico population (GOM) as a distinct population segment (DPS), USFWS (2013) found that the GOM population of the sperm whale does not meet the DPS Policy criteria for qualifying as a DPS. Therefore, listing this population as a separate DPS under the ESA is not warranted.
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC): Not at Risk (01Apr1996)
Comments on COSEWIC: Reason for Designation: Sperm whales range widely through the world's oceans and males are found off both coasts of Canada. The worldwide population is reasonably large despite historical large reductions by commercial whaling. Whaling for this species was discontinued in 1972 in Canada.

Status History: Designated Not at Risk in April 1996. More recently (2017) considered a medium priority candidate for re-assessment.

IUCN Red List Category: VU - Vulnerable
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Protection Status (CITES): Appendix I

NatureServe Global Conservation Status Factors

Range Extent: >2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)
Range Extent Comments: Throughout the world's oceans; adult females and young generally stay between 40 degrees north and 40 degrees south latitude. Nonbreeding males range into high latitude waters. Northern and southern hemisphere populations apparently are reproductively isolated from each other. See IUCN (1991) for further details.

Population Size: 10,000 to >1,000,000 individuals
Population Size Comments: World population in the mid-1980s was estimated at 982,200 (410,700 in the southern ocean, 100,000 in Atlantic, 275,000 in eastern Pacific, 198,000 in western Pacific. Other estimates range from 700,000 to 2 million (Matthews and Moseley 1990). More recently, Whitehead (2003) estimated global population of very approximately 360,000 whales based on extrapolation from visual surveys. None of these estimates should be regarded as particularly precise (see IUCN 1991).

Overall Threat Impact Comments: Historically hunted for spermaceti, ambergris, and oil. No longer threatened by direct catching, but entanglement in fishing gear may cause mortality in some areas. Potentially threatened by ocean pollution and ingestion of plastics. Since the introduction of fast ferries into the Canary Islands in 1999, significant increases in collisions fatal to whales, mainly sperm whales, have been observed (Tregenza et al. 2004).

Short-term Trend: Unknown

Long-term Trend:  
Long-term Trend Comments: Approximately 1,110,000 - 1,260,000 sperm whales reported in the North Pacific prior to exploitation, which reduced populations to 930,000 by the late 1970s (harvest peaked at about 29,000/year in the mid-1960s; Rice 1989, Whitehead 2003). Current population very approximately 360,000 whales, a 68% decline since commercial whaling was initiated (Whitehead 2003). See Reeves and Whitehead (1997) for information on status in Canada.

Other NatureServe Conservation Status Information

Inventory Needs: Obtain better information on population numbers.

Protection Needs: Enforce international and national protection measures. Prevent habitat degradation caused by dumping of toxic wastes, sewage, and garbage.

Distribution
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Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Throughout the world's oceans; adult females and young generally stay between 40 degrees north and 40 degrees south latitude. Nonbreeding males range into high latitude waters. Northern and southern hemisphere populations apparently are reproductively isolated from each other. See IUCN (1991) for further details.

U.S. States and Canadian Provinces

Due to latency between updates made in state, provincial or other NatureServe Network databases and when they appear on NatureServe Explorer, for state or provincial information you may wish to contact the data steward in your jurisdiction to obtain the most current data. Please refer to our Distribution Data Sources to find contact information for your jurisdiction.
Color legend for Distribution Map
Endemism: occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

U.S. & Canada State/Province Distribution
United States AK, CA, FL, GA, HI, MA, MD, ME, MS, NC, NY, OR, SC, TX, WA
Canada BC

Range Map
No map available.

Ecology & Life History
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Basic Description: A large ondontocete (toothed) whale.
General Description: The largest of the toothed whales, this species has a disproportionately large head, especially in males, that dominates the body. Skin posterior to the head appears corrugated or shriveled. Color is gray with a lighter area on belly and forehead; skin is white around the mouth. These whales have a distinct dorsal hump, usually rounded or obtuse, about two-thirds of the way behind their snout. Immediately behind the hump, a series of knuckles are visible when whale arches its back before diving (Alaska Geographic Society 1996). Blowhole is set forward on the head and skewed strongly to the left. Males are roughly one-third longer than females (males 18.3 m, females 11 m) and twice as a heavy. There are 20-26 pairs of large, conical teeth along the lower jaw that fit into sockets in the upper jaw (Reeves et al. 2002).
Reproduction Comments: Gestation lasts 14-15 months. Births occur May-September in Northern Hemisphere, November-March in Southern Hemisphere. Single young is produced every 3-6 years. Young are weaned in about 1.5-3.5 years, though young may continue to nurse for several years. Females sexually mature at 7-11 years; pregnancy rate gradually declines after age 14. Males may not breed until about 25 years old. May up to at least 60-70 years.
Ecology Comments: Basic social unit is mixed school of adult females plus their calves and juveniles (usually about 20-40 individuals). As males grow older they leave this group and form bachelor schools (of variable sizes up to about 50 individuals). The largest males tend to be solitary (but see Christal and Whitehead 1997). Likely the world's deepest diving mammal (documented at 2,500 m.).
Habitat Type: Marine
Non-Migrant: N
Locally Migrant: N
Long Distance Migrant: Y
Mobility and Migration Comments: Seasonal north-south migration; at higher latitudes in summer than in winter. Males move north in the summer to feed. In fall, both sexes migrate toward the equator. In winter, typically distributed south of 40 degrees N. Females, calves, and young remain in tropical or temperate waters while older males migrate to higher latitudes in summer. Males sometimes occur as far north as the Bering Sea.
Marine Habitat(s): Abyssal, Pelagic
Habitat Comments: Pelagic, prefers deep water, sometimes around islands or in shallow shelf waters (e.g., 40-70 m; Scott and Sadove 1997). Tend to occur in highest densities near productive waters, and often near steep drop-offs or strong oceanographic features, e.g. edges of continental shelves, large islands, and offshore banks and over submarine trenches and canyons (Gosho et al. 1984, Reeves and Whitehead 1997, Gregr and Trites 2001, Whitehead 2003). Females generally restricted to waters with surface temperatures warmer than about 15 degrees C and rarely found in waters less than 1000 m deep. Males, although primarily found in deep water, are sometimes found in waters 200 to 1000 m deep (Reeves and Whitehead 1997).
Adult Food Habits: Invertivore
Immature Food Habits: Invertivore
Food Comments: Eats primarily medium to large squids, sometimes also octopus and various fishes. Large males at high latitudes also take large quantities of demersal and mesopelagic sharks, skates and fishes (Gosho et al. 1984, Jefferson et al.1993, Perry et al. 1999, Whitehead 2003). Dives deeply when foraging, some dives over 1800 m have been recorded, but most are less than 500 m (Potter and Birchler, in Wilson and Ruff 1999). Apparently feeds throughout the year. Although species population depleted by whaling, may take about 75 million metric tons of food from the ocean each year; an amount similar to that taken by all human marine fisheries (Whitehead 2003).
Adult Phenology: Circadian
Immature Phenology: Circadian
Phenology Comments: Active day/night.
Length: 1830 centimeters
Weight: 48000000 grams
Economic Attributes
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Economic Comments: Source of ambergris (formed in digestive system), which has been used as fixative in perfume industry. Formerly (prior to ban on whaling) a very important commercial species (source of oil, spermaceti, and meal), with annual harvests peaking in the 1960s at 29,000. See IUCN (1991) for information on historical exploitation.
Management Summary
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Biological Research Needs: Studies needed that combine immunology, toxicology and demography and that involve populations occurring over a gradient of environments, to assess the effects of chemical pollution (Reeves and Reijnders 2002).
Population/Occurrence Delineation
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Use Class: Breeding
Minimum Criteria for an Occurrence: A marine area that is, or was, occupied by a recurring breeding school during the breeding season (January through August). Minimally, at least two and preferably several years of observation should be used to reliably identify significant, persistent occurrences.
Separation Barriers: None.
Separation Distance for Unsuitable Habitat: 100 km
Separation Distance for Suitable Habitat: 100 km
Separation Justification: Separation Distance arbitrary.
Date: 04Feb2002
Author: Cannings, S.

Use Class: Nonbreeding
Minimum Criteria for an Occurrence: A marine area that is, or was, occupied by a recurring bachelor school, or by a breeding school during the nonbreeding season (September through December). Minimally, at least two and preferably several years of observation should be used to reliably identify significant, persistent occurrences.
Separation Barriers: None.
Separation Distance for Unsuitable Habitat: 100 km
Separation Distance for Suitable Habitat: 100 km
Separation Justification: Separation Distance arbitrary.
Date: 04Feb2002
Author: Cannings, S.
Population/Occurrence Viability
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U.S. Invasive Species Impact Rank (I-Rank) Not yet assessed
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Authors/Contributors
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NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Edition Date: 06Apr2011
NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Author: Gotthardt, T. A., and G. Hammerson. Reviwed by J. Straley, University of Alaska, Southeast, October 2004.
Element Ecology & Life History Edition Date: 22Feb2006
Element Ecology & Life History Author(s): Hammerson, G., and T. A. Gotthardt. Rev. by J. Straley, University of Alaska Southeast, Oct 2004.

Zoological data developed by NatureServe and its network of natural heritage programs (see Local Programs) and other contributors and cooperators (see Sources).

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