What’s the Smallest Type of Whale in the World?

Written by Dayva Segal
Updated: October 24, 2022
Image Credit A-Z-Animals.com
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When you think of whales, you probably think of giant sea creatures like the blue whale, which is not only the largest type of whale but also the largest animal that exists on earth today. However, there are some smaller types of whales that are even smaller than dolphins!

The smallest type of toothed whale in the world is the dwarf sperm whale. Don’t confuse this type of whale with the pygmy sperm whale, another slightly larger species of small whale. From 1878 until 1998, the two were actually considered to be the same species. However, in the 1990s, scientists discovered that they were different enough to be two separate species.

In addition, there may be two different species of the dwarf sperm whale, separated by regions. One lives in the Atlantic Ocean and one lives in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. However, scientists are still doing research to find out if this is the case.

How Small is the Dwarf Sperm Whale?

Dwarf sperm whales grow to be between 6.6 feet and 8.9 feet long. They weigh between 300 and 600 pounds. Even though that is larger than the typical human, it is much smaller than the sperm whale to which the dwarf sperm whale is related. Sperm whales grow over 50 feet long and can weigh up to 90,000 pounds.

Male sperm whale swimming, Ligurian Sea, Pelagos Sanctuary, Mediterranean, Italy.
Sperm whales like this one, on the other hand, reach up to 50 feet in length. Dwarf sperm whales, on the other hand, measure 6.6 to 8.9 feet long.

wildestanimal/Shutterstock.com

How Small is the Pygmy Sperm Whale?

Pygmy sperm whales are a bit larger than dwarf sperm whales. They can grow between 11 and 14 feet long and weigh between 800 and 900 pounds.

Pygmy Sperm Whale
Pygmy sperm whales can produce a dark, ink-like liquid to escape from predators.

A-Z-Animals.com

What Does a Dwarf Sperm Whale Look Like?

Dwarf sperm whales are dark grey or blue and have a lighter-colored underside. They can be identified by the crescent-shaped mark between the eye and the fin on the side. They have a fin on their back, called the dorsal fin. Their head is somewhat square-shaped. Their body is thick and tapers swiftly in the back. Dwarf sperm whales have 14-26 bottom teeth and 6 vestigial top teeth.

Like all sperm whale species, they have a larger left nostril than the right nostril. All sperm whales, including the dwarf sperm whale, have a spermaceti organ on their head. This organ contains a waxy substance called spermaceti, which means whale sperm in Latin. Experts are not fully certain what the organ is for. They believe it may help with buoyancy, enhance echolocation, and/or protect the whale’s snout when diving.

All sperm whales also have a sac of reddish-brown fluid near the anus. When the animal is stressed or threatened this fluid gets released. Experts believe this could be used to confuse predators, similar to squids that release black ink.

Dwarf Sperm Whale Illustration
Dwarf sperm whales inhabit tropical and temperate waters around the world.

A-Z-Animals.com

What Do Dwarf Sperm Whales Eat?

What we know about the dwarf sperm whale diet is gleaned from checking the stomachs of beached whales. Scientists have found mostly squid, especially cock-eyed squid, glass squid, the elongate jewel squid, and taonius. However, they have also found deep sea fish from beyond where sunlight reaches in the ocean and crustaceans.

As mammals, baby dwarf sperm whales drink only their mother’s milk until they are around 6 months old, or about 4 feet 5 inches long. They start eating solid food but may keep nursing until they are around 18-20 months old.

Dwarf Sperm Whale Behavior

Dwarf sperm whales live in small groups of up to 4 whales. Sometimes they are solitary. Experts believe these whales follow squid migrations to stay close to their food source. They also believe that young whales may hang out in shallower water while the adults go to deeper waters.

Different types of groups have been seen:

  • Females with calves
  • A group of older calves
  • Male and female adults with no calves

When they dive, they do not flip their tail up like some whale species. They simply float along the surface and then go straight down.

Dwarf Sperm Whale Habitat and Population

Dwarf sperm whales live in both temperate and tropical oceans all across the globe. They are most often found close to continental shelves and slopes. They are rarely seen at sea, because they are somewhat shy, but are one of the most frequently seen beached whales. This animal is not endangered, however, it is hard to get an accurate count of them because of the similarities between dwarf and pygmy sperm whales. So, experts estimate the counts of both species together regionally. For example, in the North Atlantic, experts believe there are 3,785 dwarf and pygmy sperm whales.

Dwarf Sperm Whale Predators and Other Threats

Predators in the wild of the dwarf sperm whale include great white sharks and killer whales. They can also be affected by parasitic infections from nematodes and tapeworms. They seem to be susceptible to heart failure, as several beached whales have been found with that as the cause of death.

They are also hunted by humans in some countries including Indonesia, Japan, and the countries of the Lesser Antilles. Though they are not widely hunted, they can still be affected by human activities. They sometimes eat marine debris from industry operations, and can get tangled in nets.

They are not officially endangered, but they are listed as potentially data deficient. That means there simply isn’t enough information to determine if their population is growing, stable, or shrinking. Despite not being on the endangered list, they are included in several acts of protection like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Smallest Cetacean: Vaquita Porpoise

Vaquita porpoise
The vaquita is the most endangered porpoise in the world, and there are less than 20 left in the world.

A-Z-Animals.com

The dwarf sperm whale is the smallest type of toothed whale. However, there are other small animals in the cetacea family, which also include dolphins and porpoises. Even though these are separate species, they are technically whales from a scientific perspective. So, if we are considering dolphins and porpoises, the vaquita porpoise is the smallest whale ever. The name means “little cow” in Spanish.

Sadly, the vaquita porpoise is one of the most critically endangered marine mammals. According to some sources, there are only 30 left in the wild.

They grow up to 4.9 feet long and weigh between 60 and 150 pounds.

They live only in a tiny portion of the northern Gulf of California. They have the smallest habitat of any marine mammal. This is probably a contributing factor to their low numbers, in addition to human activity reducing the available food supply. They also get caught up in fishing nets and are susceptible to pollution in the water. In addition to human activity, they still have to worry about their natural predator, sharks.

Smallest Baleen Whale: Pygmy Right Whale

what do whales eat - baleen
Baleen whales ingest plankton by filtering water through special plates in their mouths.

John Tunney/Shutterstock.com

Instead of teeth, baleen whales have special plates in their mouth that filter water to help them eat tiny creatures called plankton. The blue whale and right whale are examples of baleen whales. The pygmy right whale is the smallest baleen whale, even though they are not so small. They grow between 20 and 21 feet long and weigh between around 6,000 and 7,000 pounds.

They live only in the temperate oceans of the southern hemisphere. As of 2008, there have only been 25 sightings of pygmy right whales. Most of what scientists know about them comes from beached whale specimens. The fact that it is not considered endangered on the IUCN Red List is likely due to a lack of available data. It is on other conservation lists such as the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

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Dwarf Sperm Whale Illustration
Dwarf sperm whales inhabit tropical and temperate waters around the world.
A-Z-Animals.com
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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer who has been working in the field of content creation and digital marketing for more than seven years. My favorite topics to write about include health, animals, fitness, and nutrition, though as a professional content provider and ghostwriter, I can easily write about pretty much anything! I love all animals and have been some form of vegetarian or vegan for over 10 years. My favorite animals are cats, dogs, and chickens, especially my own cat, Tula.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is the smallest type of whale in the world?

The dwarf sperm whale is the smallest type of whale in the world.

How small is the dwarf sperm whale?

Dwarf sperm whales grow to be between 6.6 feet and 8.9 feet long. They weigh between 300 and 600 pounds.

How large is a sperm whale?

Sperm whales grow over 50 feet long and can weigh up to 90,000 pounds.

How small are pygmy sperm whales?

Pygmy sperm whales can grow between 11 and 14 feet long and weigh between 800 and 900 pounds.

What do dwarf sperm whales look like?

Dwarf sperm whales are dark grey or blue and have a lighter-colored underside. It can be identified by the crescent-shaped mark between the eye and the fin on the side. It has a fin on its back, called the dorsal fin. Their head is somewhat square-shaped. Their body is thick and tapers swiftly in the back. Like all sperm whale species, they have a larger left nostril than right nostril.

How many teeth do dwarf sperm whales have?

Dwarf sperm whales have 14-26 bottom teeth and 6 vestigial top teeth.

What is a spermaceti organ?

All sperm whales, including the dwarf sperm whale, have a spermaceti organ on their head. This organ contains a waxy substance called spermaceti, which means whale sperm in Latin.

What does spermaceti do in whales?

Experts are not fully certain what the organ is for. They believe it may help with buoyancy, enhance echolocation, and/or protect the whale’s snout when diving.

Why do sperm whales release red liquid?

When the animal is stressed or threatened a reddish fluid gets released near the anus. Experts believe this could be used to confuse predators, similar to squids that release black ink.

What do dwarf sperm whales eat?

Dwarf sperm whales mostly eat squid, especially cock-eyed squid, glass squid, elongate jewel squid, and taonius. They also eat deep sea fish from beyond where sunlight reaches in the ocean and crustaceans.

How long do baby dwarf sperm whales nurse?

Baby dwarf sperm whales drink only their mother’s milk until they are around 6 months old, or about 4 feet 5 inches long. They start eating solid food but may keep nursing until they are around 18-20 months old.

Where do dwarf sperm whales live?

Dwarf sperm whales live in both temperate and tropical oceans all across the globe. They are most often found close to continental shelves and slopes.

How many dwarf sperm whales are there?

It is hard to get an accurate count of them because of the similarities between dwarf and pygmy sperm whales. So, experts estimate the counts of both species together regionally. For example, in the North Atlantic, experts believe there are 3,785 dwarf and pygmy sperm whales.

What are the predators of the dwarf sperm whale?

Predators in the wild of the dwarf sperm whale include great white sharks and killer whales.

What are the threats to the dwarf sperm whale?

They can be affected by parasitic infections from nematodes and tapeworms. They seem to be susceptible to heart failure, as several beached whales have been found with that as the cause of death.

They are also hunted by humans in some countries including Indonesia, Japan, and the Lesser Antilles. Though they are not widely hunted, they can still be affected by human activities. They sometimes eat marine debris from industry operations and can get tangled in nets.

Is the dwarf sperm whale endangered?

Dwarf sperm whales are not officially endangered, but they are listed as potentially data deficient. That means there simply isn’t enough information to determine if their population is growing, stable, or shrinking. Despite not being on the endangered list, they are included in several acts of protection like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

What is the smallest cetacean?

The vaquita porpoise is the smallest cetacean.

Why is it called the vaquita porpoise?

The name vaquita means little cow in Spanish.

What is the most endangered marine mammal?

The vaquita porpoise is the most endangered marine mammal.

How many vaquita porpoises are there?

According to some sources, there are only 30 vaquita porpoises left in the wild.

How small is the vaquita porpoise?

The vaquita porpoise grows up to 4.9 feet long and weigh between 60 and 150 pounds.

Where does the vaquita porpoise live?

The vaquita porpoise lives only in a tiny portion of the northern Gulf of California.

What marine mammal has the smallest habitat?

The vaquite porpoise has the smallest habitat of any marine mammal.

What are the threats to the vaquita porpoise?

They are sensitive to many factors because they have such a small habitat. Human activity reduces the available food supply. They also get caught up in fishing nets and are susceptible to pollution in the water. In addition to human activity, they still have to worry about their natural predator, sharks.

What is the smallest baleen whale?

The pgymy right whale is the smallest baleen whale.

How small is the pygmy right whale?

Pygmy right whels grow between 20 and 21 feet long and weigh between around 6,000 and 7,000 pounds.

Where do pygmy right whales live?

Pygmy right whales live only in the temperate oceans of the southern hemisphere.

How many pygmy right whale sightings have there been?

As of 2008, there have only been 25 sightings of pygmy right whales.

Are pygmy right whales endangered?

Pygmy right whales are not considered endangered on the IUCN Red List, likely due to a lack of available data. It is on other conservation lists such as the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarf_sperm_whale#Population_and_distribution
  2. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmy_sperm_whale
  3. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaquita
  4. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmy_right_whale
  5. Save the Whales, Available here: https://savethewhales.org/dwarf-sperm-whale/#:~:text=Dwarf%20sperm%20whales%20are%20rarely,portion%20of%20their%20body%20visible
  6. Orca Web, Available here: https://www.orcaweb.org.uk/species-sightings/whales/dwarf-sperm-whale#:~:text=The%20dwarf%20sperm%20whale%20is,indistinguishable%20when%20spotted%20at%20sea
  7. Scuba, Available here: https://www.scuba.com/blog/explore-the-blue/5-smallest-whale-species/
  8. US Whales, Available here: https://us.whales.org/whales-dolphins/what-are-the-differences-between-whales-dolphins-and-porpoises/
  9. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baleen_whale
  10. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spermaceti
  11. Science, Available here: https://www.science.org/content/article/world-s-most-endangered-marine-mammal-down-30-individuals