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  • Subject:
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. There are many different kinds of whales.
2. The two main types are baleen whales and toothed whales.


For this lesson, you will need:
Pictures of different kinds of whales
Research materials on whales
Computer with Internet access


1. Review with your class what they have learned about whales. Before beginning the activity, students should know that although whales live in water, whales are mammals. Like all mammals, they are warm blooded and breathe air through their lungs.
2. Ask your students if they know what whales eat. After students have given their ideas, tell them that there are two main types of whales: baleen whales and toothed whales.
3. Go on to explain that baleen whales have no teeth. Instead, they have hundreds of thin plates in their mouths called baleen. These plates hang from a whale's upper jaw and are made of the same material as human fingernails. Baleen whales eat plankton—masses of tiny plants and animals that drift in the water. The function of baleen is to strain out plankton from the water. There are 10 types of baleen whales, including most of the larger whales.
4. Next, explain that toothed whales have teeth. Some eat fish, and others each such animals as cuttlefish and squid. Toothed whales do not chew their food, however. Their teeth are used to catch the food, which the whale swallows whole. There are 65 types of toothed whales, including dolphins and porpoises.
5. Divide your class into teams to play the whale version of "Who Am I?" Assign each team to research a number of whales—at least one or two for each team member. Here is a list of whales to start with:
  • Baleen whales: blue whale, gray whale, Sei whale, black right whale, pygmy right whale, fin whale, bowhead whale, minke whale, humpback whale, Bryde's whale
  • Toothed whales: sperm whale, killer whale, Baird's beaked whale, pilot whale, narwhal, beluga, dolphin, porpoise, river dolphin
6. Teams should divide up the whales they have been assigned so that each team member researches the same number. Researchers should amass as much information as possible about their whales. To guide research, suggest students first classify their whales as baleen or toothed and then look for information about size, shape, habitat, food, habits, physical characteristics, and color. Each student should write a brief, clear description of his or her whale(s).
7. Team members should study each other's research, so that all students on one team are familiar with all the whales described by their teammates.
8. Have each team submit its research in a folder, labeled with some sort of team identification.
9. Distribute folders so that each team has another team's research. The members of each team should use the folder they have been given to quiz the team whose identification appears on the folder. A student from the "asking team" will read the description of one of the whales described in the folder and then ask the question "Who Am I?" singling out any member of the "answering team" (the team that generated the research) to answer the question.

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Have students research whale anatomy. Each student should produce diagrams of both the outside and the inside of a whale. The outside diagram should include the following: eye, mouth, blowhole, dorsal fin, fluke, flipper. The inside diagram should include the following: tongue, trachea, rib cage, heart, liver, stomach, intestines, anus, reproductive organs, bladder, kidney, backbone, lung, shoulder blade, brain, skull.

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Discussion Questions

1. Why are whales classified as mammals?
2. What is the importance of phytoplankton and zooplankton in the ocean food web? Keep in mind that plankton explain a great deal about why whales are where they are.
3. How do feeding techniques differ among blue whales, fin whales, gray whales, humpback whales, and killer whales?
4. The ancient ancestors of today's whales were four-footed land mammals. Scientist believe that between 50 and 60 million years ago early whales arose from these now extinct land mammals as they ventured back to the sea. What are some possible explanations for this migration back to the marine environment?
5. What adaptations were necessary for the evolution from land mammals to marine mammals?
6. How does the social structure differ between the dolphins and larger baleen whales?
7. What are some unique features of cetacean communication?

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You can evaluate your students on their descriptions using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: complete and accurate; well organized; error-free
Two points: nearly complete; mostly accurate; satisfactorily organized; some errors
One point: incomplete; numerous inaccuracies; poorly organized; many errors
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining a minimum number of characteristics to be described.

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Adopt a Whale
Many agencies sponsor whale adoption projects. Some agencies will send students a picture of their whale and information about recent sightings. One such agency students might contact is the International Wildlife Coalition. Students can write for information at 634 North Falmouth Highway, P.O. Box 388, North Falmouth, MA 02556-0388.

Aqua Buffet
Have students research the food web of the Antarctic Regions and create a mobile that illustrates the relationships between phytoplankton (plants such as diatoms), zooplankton (animals such as krill and copepods, squid, small fish, and whales).

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Suggested Readings

Guardians of the Whales; the Quest to Study Whales in the Wild
Bruce Obee and Graeme Ellis, Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1992
Read and see the photographs of the whales of the North Pacific: gray whales, humpbacks, orcas and others. Did you know that there are nine species of baleen whales in the North Pacific and about 30 types of toothed whales there?

Orca: Visions of the Killer Whale
Peter Knudtson, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996
The whale lives in all oceans of the world. This book gives information about this mammal of the ocean—its history in myth and in different cultures, its life cycle and new evidence of its ability to communicate.

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Whale Songs
This site is an educational center about whales and people.

WhaleNet at Whelock College—Boston
The WhaleNet website focuses on whale research and offers educational resources.

Whales on the Net
This site provides the visitor with a comprehensive list of information about whales, their conservation, and updated news reports.

International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP)
This page is where the Earth Island Institute shares information about their efforts to protect marine mammals.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
This is the homepage of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    Cetacea
Definition: A scientific order of various aquatic, chiefly marine mammals, including whales, dolphins and porpoises, characterized by a nearly hairless body, anterior limbs modified into broad flippers, vestigial posterior limbs, and a flat, notched tail.
Context: The blue whale belongs to the order Cetacea.

speaker    mammal
Definition: Any of various warm-blooded vertebrate animals of the class Mammalia, including human beings, characterized by a covering of hair on the skin and, in the female, milk-producing mammary glands for nourishing the young.
Context: As mammals, whales use lungs.

speaker    spermaceti
Definition: A white, waxy substance consisting of various esters of fatty acids, obtained from the head of the sperm whale or another cetacean and used for making candles, ointments and cosmetics.
Context: Its bulbous head contains the spermaceti organ.

speaker    flukes
Definition: Either of the two horizontally flattened divisions of the tail of a whale.
Context: Tail flukes are horizontal rather than vertical.

speaker    blubber
Definition: The thick layer of fat between the skin and the muscle layers of whales and other marine mammals, from which oil is obtained.
Context: Blubber acts as thermal insulation.

speaker    baleen
Definition: The elastic, horny material forming the fringed plates that hang from the upper jaw of baleen whales and strain plankton from the water.
Context: Baleen plates enable whales to harvest plankton.

speaker    shoal
Definition: A large school of fish or marine mammals.
Context: The whales moved in a spiral beneath a shoal of fish.

speaker    blowhole
Definition: An opening for breathing, located on the top of the head of cetaceans such as whales and dolphins.
Context: The blowhole moved to the top of the head.

speaker    pod
Definition: A school of marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins or seals.
Context: Sperm whales group together in pods.

speaker    migrate
Definition: To change location periodically, especially by moving seasonally from one region to another.
Context: The annual migration of any whale is synchronized with mating patterns.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: life science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
Knows that behavior is one kind of response an organism may make to an internal or environmental stimulus, and may be determined by heredity or from past experience; a behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels including cells, organ systems and whole organisms.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: life science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
Knows that humans are increasingly modifying ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption; human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes and other factors is threatening global stability, and if not addressed, will irreversibly damage ecosystems.

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: technology
Understands the scientific enterprise.
Knows that individuals and teams have contributed and will continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise; doing science or engineering can be as simple as an individual conducting field studies or as complex as hundreds of people working on a single major scientific question or technological problem.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: technology
Understands the nature of technological design.
Knows that a solution and its consequences must be tested against the needs or criteria the solution was designed to meet.

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: life science
Understands the basic concept of evolution of species.
Knows that biological evolution accounts for a diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations; species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation (e.g., changes in structure, behavior, or physiology that enhance reproductive success), which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: life science
Understands the basic concept of evolution of species.
Knows that heritable characteristics, which can be biochemical and anatomical, largely determine what capabilities an organism will have, how it will behave and, hence, how likely it is to survive and reproduce.

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Summer Productions, Inc.

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