Characteristics and Taxonomy of Mysticeti

Feeding Humpback Whales, Alaska. Humpbacks are a mysticeti species and feed using baleen/
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Mysticeti refers to the baleen whales - whales that have a filtering system made up of baleen plates hanging from their upper jaw. The baleen filters the whale's food from the ocean water.

The taxonomic group Mysticeti is a suborder of the Order Cetacea, which includes all the whales, dolphins and porpoises. These animals may be referred to as mysticetes, or baleen whales. Some of the largest animals in the world are mysticetes. Below you can learn more about whale classification and characteristics of the whales in this group.

Mysticeti Etymology

The world mysticeti is thought to come from the Greek work mystíkētos (whalebone whale) or possibly the word mystakókētos (mustache whale) and the Latin cetus (whale).

In days when whales were harvested for their baleen, the baleen was called whalebone, even though it is made of protein, not bone.

Whale Classification

All whales are classified as vertebrate animals in the order Cetartiodactyla, which includes the even-toed ungulates (e.g., cows, camels, deer) and whales. This initially incongruous classification is based on recent findings that whales evolved from hooved ancestors.

Within the Cetartiodactyla order, there's a group (infraorder) called Cetacea. This contains about 90 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. These are further divided into two groups - Mysticeti and Odontoceti. The Mysticeti and Odontoceti are classified to as superfamilies or suborder, depending on what classification system you view.

Characteristics of Mysticeti vs. Odontoceti

Animals in the Mysticeti group are whales whose basic characteristics are that they have baleen, symmetrical skulls and two blowholes. Animals in the Odontoceti group have teeth, asymmetrical skulls and one blowhole.

Mysticete Families

Now, let's delve into the Mysticeti group. Within this group, there are four families:

  • Right Whales (Balaenidae), which includes the North Pacific, North Atlantic and southern right whales and the bowhead whale.
  • Pygmy Right Whale (Neobalaenidae), which includes just the pygmy right whale
  • Gray Whales (Eschrichtiidae), which includes just the gray whale
  • Rorquals (Balaenopteridae), which includes blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei, Bryde's, and Omura's whales

How Different Types of Mysticetes Feed

All of the mysticetes feed using baleen, but some are skim feeders and some are gulp feeders. Skim feeders, like the right whales, have large heads and long baleen and feed by swimming through the water with their mouth open, filtering the water in the front of the mouth and out between the baleen.

Rather than filtering as they swim, gulp feeders, like the rorquals, use their pleated lower jaw like a scoop to gulp in large quantities of water and fish, and then they strain the water out in between their baleen plates.


References and Further Information

  • Bannister, J.L. "Baleen Whales." In Perrin, W.F., Wursig, B. and J.G.M. Thewissen. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press. p. 62-73.
  • Mead, J.G. and J.P. Gold. 2002. Whales and Dolphins in Question. Smithsonian Institution.
  • Perrin, W. 2015. Mysticeti. In: Perrin, W.F. (2015) World Cetacea Database. Accessed through: World Register of Marine Species, September 30, 2015.
  • Society for Marine Mammalogy Committee on Taxonomy. 2014. List of Marine Mammal Species & Subspecies. Accessed September 29, 2015.
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Kennedy, Jennifer. "Mysticeti." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Kennedy, Jennifer. (2021, February 16). Mysticeti. Retrieved from Kennedy, Jennifer. "Mysticeti." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).