Eschrichtius robustus

(Atlantic population)


Kingdom Animalia

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Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Cetacea
Family Eschrichtiidae
Genus Eschrichtius
Species Eschrichtius robustus (Atlantic population)
Authority (Lilljeborg, 1861)
English Name Atlantic Grey Whale, Atlantic Gray Whale, North Atlantic Grey Whale, North Atlantic Gray Whale, Scrag Whale (antiquated)
Danish Name Nordatlantiske Grĺhval
Dutch Name Atlantische Grijze Walvis
French Name Baleine Grise de l'Atlantique
German Name Atlantischen Grauwale
Synonyms Balaenoptera robusta Lilljeborg, 1861; Balaena gibbosa Erxleben, 1777; Eschrichtius gibbosus (Erxleben, 1777); Eschrichtius gibbosus gibbosus (Erxleben, 1777)
Comments The grey whale as a species is not extinct. Only its Atlantic Ocean population has disappeared.
Taxonomy In 1861, Wilhelm Lilljeborg identified a sub-fossil, naming it Balaenoptera robusta. In the same decade, John Gray of the British Museum noted the differences between this species and the rorqual whales (Family Balaenopteridae), and so placed it in a new genus, Eschrichtius, after the zoologist Daniel Eschricht. There have been no differences found between individuals of Atlantic and Pacific Ocean populations of the grey whale that would justify separating these populations into different species or even subspecies (Mead and Mitchell 1984).
Characteristics The grey whale is a medium to large (11-15 m) dark to light grey coloured baleen whale. The skin is mottles and these whales are often covered with patched of barnacles and crustaceans. This species lack a dorsal fin, but has a prominent dorsal hump followed by a series of 6-12 knuckles along the dorsal ridge. The females of this species tend to be larger than the males. The short baleen plates are coloured cream to pale yellow. The throat is allowed to extend during feeding by two to four throat grooves. (American Cetacean Society 2004; COSEWIC 2004; Kurlansky 2000)
Lifestyle Nothing is known about the lifestyle and behaviour of the Atlantic Grey Whale. It is known that whale-hunters called this creature "devil fish", because of their fighting behaviour when hunted (Ellis 2003; Wikipedia contributors 2006). It is likely that this grey whale population had the same lifestyle as the surviving Pacific grey whales.
Range & Habitat The Atlantic Grey Whale once inhabited the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean (Cetacean Specialist Group 1996; Byrant 1995). This is documented by subfossil remains (Mead and Mitchell 1984) as well as historical accounts (Mead and Mitchell 1984; Lindquist 2000, Ellis 2003).

Image: the probable previous range of the Atlantic grey whale (in red) and the present range of the Pacific grey whale (in green). Created by Peter Maas for The Extinction Website. This image has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives 3.0 Licence.

In the eastern North Atlantic, these whales were present in the Baltic and North Seas and the English Channel (Mead and Mitchell 1984), as well as the waters around Iceland (Lindquist 2000). With the coming of autumn it probably migrated south to France or Spain (Ellis 2003). A cervical vertebra of this species, dating from the Iberian Pre-Roman epoch, may have been found in the northwestern Mediterranean (Macé 2003). In the western North Atlantic, subfossil remains were found from southeastern Florida north to Long Island (Mead and Mitchell 1984; Reeves and Mitchell 1988). They may also have visited Canadian waters, including the Scotian Shelf, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Grand Banks, and even entered Hudson Bay (Reeves and Mitchell 1988; DFO 2006). (COSEWIC 2004)

Food The whale feeds mainly on bottom-dwelling amphipods, isopods, polychaete worms, molluscs, and other invertebrates which it eats by turning on its side (usually to the right) and scooping up the sediments from the sea floor. It has a baleen, or whalebone, which acts like a sieve to capture small sea animals including amphipods taken in along with sand, water and other material. Mostly, the animal feeds in the northern waters during the summer; and opportunistically feeds during its migration trip, depending primarily on its extensive fat reserves. (Kurlansky 2000; Wikipedia contributors 2006)
Reproduction Little information is known about the actual mating behaviour of grey whales and nothing about the Atlantic population in specific. It is believed that extra animals are needed to hold the mating pair together. Like the grey whales in the surviving Pacific populations, the Atlantic grey whale became most likely sexually mature at an age of eight years. Grey whales give birth to one calve in the warm southern calving grounds. The calf's layer of blubber is too thin to survive in the cold arctic waters. It has been suggested that the Atlantic grey whale's calving grounds were in he waters of France, Spain or possibly even the Mediterranean Sea (Macé 2003). When the calves are ready for the journey to the arctic north they start their migration. The grey whale calves are weaned in the north, their feeding grounds. (Kurlansky 2000)
History & Population The Grey Whale became known to science through the discovery and description of subfossil remains from the coasts of England and Sweden (Bryant 1995). A subfossil skeleton at Gräsö (Roslagen, Upsala, Sweden) was the type of Lilljeborg's Balaenoptera robusta

Photo: Cervical Vertebra / Individual from the northwestern Mediterranean, Pre-Roman (Iberian) Epoch. (Matthias Macé 2003) This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Sub-fossil remains, the most recent dated at around 1675 A.D., have been found on the eastern seaboard of North America from Florida to new Jersey, and on the coasts of the English Channel and the North and Baltic seas. (IUCN 2007; Temple and Terry 2007)

Researchers of old written sources think that grey whale hunting still took place during the Middle Ages in the North Sea (Mol et al. 2003). There are historical accounts of living grey whales from Iceland in the early 1600s and possibly off New England in the early 1700s (Rice 1998; IUCN 2007; Temple and Terry 2007). Dating remains and limited historical records support the view that the grey whale existed in the Atlantic Ocean until the 17th century. The Grey Whale was extirpated from the North Atlantic within the last 300–400 years (Reeves et al. 2003). The species now survives only in the North Pacific and adjacent waters (IUCN 2007; Temple and Terry 2007).

Extinction Causes The Atlantic Grey Whale may have been among the species hunted by early whalers, according several suggestions provided by historical accounts (Mead and Mitchell 1984). The fact that Atlantic grey whales were extirpated long before the onset of large-scale industrial whaling suggests that grey whales as a species are susceptible to coastal community-based whaling (COSEWIC 2004).
Reintroduction At the 19th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (15 to 19 July 2005) in Brazil,  Dr Andrew Ramsey and Dr Owen Nevin, of the University of Central Lancashire's School of Natural Resources, proposed the idea that the grey whales could be reintroduced in the Irish Sea. They propose airlifting 50 surplus grey whales from the east Pacific coast population for release off the coast of northern England, the Cumbrian coastline, starting in 2015. According to these scientists it's ecologically, logistically and economically feasible and whale watching could regenerate struggling fishing communities around these coasts. A Lake District survey revealed that 90% of people would be in favour of re-introducing the grey whale to Britain, so it seems that this idea has already the backing of the local people. However, the idea caused division between conservationists. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has criticised this idea heavily, labelling it "neither feasible nor sensible". The group has serious doubts as to whether the Pacific grey whales could even survive in the Atlantic. (BBC News 2005; BBC Wildlife Magazine 2005; Reuters 2005)
Museum Specimens The type specimen, a subfossil partial skeleton is kept in the collection of the University Museum of Upsala, Sweden (Deméré, Berta & McGowen 2005). Do you know any other museums that have this species in their collection? Contact this website!
Relatives The only extant representatives of the family Eschrichtiidae are the Grey Whales in the North Pacific, where there are two geographically separated populations (Reeves et al. 2003; Rice 1998). One population occurs along the east Pacific coast from Baja California to the Bering and Chukchi seas, the other occurs in the west Pacific from South Korea to the Okhotsk Sea (Macdonald 2001).

Gray Whale - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Eschrichtius robustus

ADW: Eschrichtius robustus: Information

Extinction: Atlantic Grey Whale UWSP GEOG358 [Heywood]



(Complete website)

American Cetacean Society. 2004. Gray Whale - Cetacean Fact Sheet. <> Downloaded on 6 January 2007.

BBC News. 18 July 2005. US whales may be brought to UK. Downloaded on 8 January 2007 from

BBC Wildlife Magazine. 2005. Clash over Whale reintroduction. Latest News (20 July 2005). Downloaded on 8 January 2007 from

Bryant, P.J. 1995. Dating Remains of Gray Whales from the Eastern North Atlantic. Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 76, No. 3 (August 1995), pp. 857-861. doi:10.2307/1382754.

Cetacean Specialist Group 1996. Eschrichtius robustus. In: IUCN 2006. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <>. Downloaded on 26 December 2006.

COSEWIC 2004. COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the grey whale (Eastern North Pacific population) Eschrichtius robustus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. vii + 31 pp. (

Deméré, T.A., Berta, A. and McGowen, M.R. 2005. The Taxonomic and Evolutionary History of Fossil and Modern Balaenopteroid Mysticetes. Journal of Mammalian Evolution, Vol. 12, Nos. 1/2, June 2005.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). 2006. Gray Whale - Atlantic population. Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA). Downloaded on 26 December 2006.

Ellis, Richard. 2003. Gray Whales in the Atlantic (introduction). The Empty Ocean. Island Press. Washington, D.C. ISBN 1-55963-974-1.

IUCN 2007. Eschrichtius robustus. In: IUCN 2007. European Mammal Assessment. Downloaded on 19 January 2008.

Kurlansky, M. 2000. "Eschrichtius robustus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed January 06, 2007 at

Lindquist, O. 2000. The North Atlantic gray whale (Escherichtius robustus): An historical outline based on Icelandic, Danish-Icelandic, English and Swedish sources dating from ca 1000 AD to 1792. Centre for Environmental History and Policy, Universities of St. Andrews and Sterling, Scotland St. Andrews, UK. 53 pp.

Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Macé, M. 2003. Did the Gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, calve in the Mediterranean? Lattara, 16, p. 153-164. ISSN 0996-6900.

Mead, J.G. and Mitchell, E.D., 1984 Atlantic gray whales, pp 225–278, in JONES, M. L., Swatz, S. L. and Leatherwood, S. The gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus. New York: Academic. Pp xxiv, 600. (Also: Mead, J.G. and Mitchell, E.D. 1984. Atlantic gray whales. pp. 33-53 in M.L. Jones, S.L. Swartz and S. Leatherwood (eds.), The Gray Whale, Academic Press, London, UK.)

Mol, D. et al. 2003. Late Pleistocene terrestrial and marine mammals from the Eurogeul, North Sea, the Netherlands. 3rd International Mammoth Conference, Yukon, Canada, May 2003. Quaternary International.

Reeves, R.R., Smith, B.D., Crespo, E.A. and di Sciara, G.N. (compilers) 2003. Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World's Cetaceans. IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Reuters. 2005. Scientists Plan to Reintroduce Gray Whales off UK. ENN: Environmental News Network. Downloaded on 8 January 2007 from

Rice, D.W. 1998. Marine Mammals of the World. Systematics and Distribution. Special Publication Number 4. The Society for Marine Mamalogy, Lawrence, Kansas.

Temple, H.J. and Terry, A. (Compilers). 2007. The Status and Distribution of European Mammals. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. viii + 48pp, 210 x 297 mm. (Temple and Terry 2007)

Wikipedia contributors. 2006. Gray Whale. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. December 31, 2006, 16:13 UTC. Available at: Accessed January 12, 2007.

Last updated: 19th January 2008.

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