Balaenoptera bonaerensisAntarctic minke whale

Geographic Range

Balaenoptera bonaerensis occurs in polar to tropical waters of the southern hemisphere. It occurs in large numbers south of 60º S, throughout the Antarctic. The distribution is more difficult to assess north of the Antarctic because of its co-occurrence with Balaenoptera acutorostrata. As a result, the boundaries of the species’ winter distributions remain largely undefined. Balaenoptera bonaerensis is observed off the coast of Brazil and South Africa and there have been occasional sightings in Peru. An unknown proportion of the species remains in Antarctic waters during the winter. (Mead and Brownell Jr, 2005; )


Balaenoptera bonaerensis can be found in marine waters from polar to tropical regions, generally within 160 km of the edge of pack ice. While mostly found at the ice edge, B. bonaerensis can also be found within the pack ice and in polynyas. Association with pack ice is especially pronounced during winter. (Thiele, et al., 2004; Mead and Brownell Jr, 2005; Schueller, 2004)

Physical Description

Balaenoptera bonaerensis is among the smallest rorqual species. Mature males average 8.36 m in length and weigh 6.85 tons, but they can reach a total length of 9.63 m and a weight of 11.05 tons. Females are slightly longer with a mean total length of 7.57 m and a maximum measured length of 10.22 m. On average, B. bonaerensis is slightly longer than all forms of B. acutorostrata. Similar to common minke whales, Antarctic minke whales are dark grey on the back with a pale ventral side. The main recognition character that allows for the distinction of Antarctic minke whales from common minke whales is the absence of a white patch on the flippers in Antarctic minke whales. The rostrum is narrow and pointed. The dorsal fin is hook-shaped and located about two-thirds the length of the body from the anterior. Baleen plates are black on the left side and on the posterior 2/3 of the right side, while the remaining baleen plates are white. The baleen plate filaments average about 3.0 mm in diameter. Antarctic minke whales have larger skulls than common minke whales. (Konishi, et al., 2008; Perrin and Brownell Jr, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range length
    6.32 to 10.22 m
    20.73 to 33.53 ft
  • Average length
    Males: 8.36; Females:8.89 m


Lucena (2006) suggested that Antarctic minke whales are polygamous, judging by the structure of groups in breeding grounds. Little is known about mating behavior in any rorqual. (Lucena, 2006)

Kasamatsu et al. (1995) found that minke whales (probably Balaenoptera bonaerensis) migrate far north but their main breeding areas are probably between 10º and 20º S. Breeding populations may be relatively dispersed and do not seem to be associated with the coast. The generation time is estimated to be about 22 years. (Kasamatsu, et al., 1995)

Antarctic minke whales, like common minke whales, have a gestation period of 10 months, after which a single young is born at about 2.7 meters long. Calves stay with their mother for up to 2 years and may nurse for 3 to 6 months. (Schueller, 2004)

In Antarctic minke whales, the age at which sexual maturity is reached has been shown to have decreased from an average of age 11 in the cohorts of 1950’s to about 7 years old in the 1970’s cohorts. (Thomson, et al., 1999)

  • Breeding interval
    Antarctic minke whale females can breed up to every year, although it is more common for them to breed less often.
  • Breeding season
    It is thought that the breeding season occurs during the austral summer.
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    10 months
  • Range weaning age
    3 to 6 months
  • Range time to independence
    2 (high) years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    7 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    7 years

Female Antarctic minke whales gestate, nurse, and protect their young for up to two years. Males do not provide parental care. The milk of their close relatives, common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), contains lactose and several other oligosaccharides, some of which have never been found in any other mammalian species. These new oligosaccharides may have a function in the immunity of the neonate. (Urashima, et al., 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female


In an 18-year study of energy storage in Antarctic minke whales, Konishi et al. (2008) aged a total of 4,268 mature whales (mature males and pregnant females). They used measurement of the earplug, a layered keratinized and fatty structure inside the external auditory canal, to determine age. The oldest whale aged in their study was 73 years old according to this technique. (Konishi, et al., 2008; Lockyer, 1972)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    73 (high) years


Minke whales in Antarctic feeding areas can be solitary or form small groups. They are generally seen in groups of 2 to 4 individuals. Distribution of individuals within these groups is relatively random. There seems to be an enhanced amount of clustering in relatively enclosed areas (e.g., bays) as opposed to open water habitats. Antarctic minke whales sometimes uses the rostrum to break ice several centimeters in thickness to create breathing holes. The distance between two neighboring holes usually ranges from 200 m to 300 m. The species is often said to actively avoid moving ships and uses “porpoising” behavior in doing so. However, minke whales are also notorious for their curiosity and are one of the most frequently observed rorquals because of their habit of approaching stationary boats. Fleeing behavior is not as commonly observed in the pack ice. Antarctic minke whales are fast swimmers, capable of speeds up to 20 km/hr. They typically dive for 2 to 6 minutes, with 1 minute at the surface during which they blow 5 to 8 times. They can dive for up to 20 minutes. Minke whales breach more often than other baleen whales. Most populations seem to migrate between summer and winter grounds, but some populations appear to remain in Antarctic waters throughout the year. (Ainley, et al., 2007; Kasamatsu, et al., 1998; Schueller, 2004)

Home Range

Home range sizes have not been estimated.

Communication and Perception

Balaenoptera acutorostrata in the North Atlantic produces an extensive range of sounds. Mellinger and Carson (2000) analyzed pulse trains of minke whales in the Caribbean and classified them into two categories: the “speed-up” trains and the less common “slow-down” trains. Pulse trains are sequences of pulses produced at regular or irregular intervals. There is limited information, however, as to whether this type of vocalization is also present in B. bonaerensis and what function it serves in B. acutorostrata. (Mellinger and Carson, 2000)

Food Habits

Antarctic minke whales feed mainly on krill (Euphausia superba). Euphausia superba comprises 100% of stomach contents of minke whales caught at the ice edge and 94% (by weight) of the stomach contents of minke whales in the offshore zone. Euphausia crystarollophias was also found in smaller quantities in the stomachs of Antarctic minke whales caught in coastal areas. Other prey include Euphasi frigida and Thysanoessa macrura. This is in contrast to common minke whales, which feed on a more diverse array of fish and invertebrates. Antarctic minke whales feed primarily in the early morning and late evening and most feeding activity is observed at the edge of pack ice. Daily food consumption in the summer was estimated at 3.6 to 5.3% of body weight, representing an important proportion of krill biomass in the study area. It is likely that Antarctic minke whales eat much smaller quantities of food during the austral winter or perhaps forage very little at all on wintering grounds (Best 1982 as cited in Reilly et al., 2008). The blubber layer thickens as the feeding season progresses but mean blubber thickness in individuals has decreased over the 18 year period between 1987 and 2005. This might suggest a decrease in food availability in Antarctic waters. (Ichii and Kato, 1991; Konishi, et al., 2008; Reilly, et al., 2008; Tamura and Konishi, 2006)


Antarctic minke whales seem to be the main prey for type-A killer whales in Antarctica (Orcinus orca). Antarctic minke whales also represent a large proportion of Japanese whaling catches and have become an increasingly important in recent years with the decline of larger Balaenoptera species populations. (Pitman and Ensor, 2003; Reilly, et al., 2008)

Ecosystem Roles

Antarctic minke whales are predators of krill, mainly Euphasia superba and are preyed on by killer whales (Orcinus orca). They may compete with other mammals and birds feeding on krill, such as penguins (Spheniscidae), crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophaga), and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). Antarctic minke whales may also be the host of several types of microorganisms. For instance, they are often observed to have a film of diatoms on their skin. The extent of this film is thought to be correlated with the amount of time a whale has spent in cold waters. (Konishi, et al., 2008; Pitman and Ensor, 2003; Tamura and Konishi, 2006)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Since 1986, commercial whaling has been prohibited by the International Whaling Commision. Balaenoptera bonaerensis is currently taken for scientific whaling by the Japanese. The animals caught in that process can then be sold on the market for food. Before the decline of larger whale species, such as fin and blue whales (Balaenoptera physalus and Balaenoptera musculus, respectively), B. bonaerensis was rarely targeted by whalers due to its comparatively smaller size. Consequently, whaling on Antarctic minke whales has only started relatively recently, since 1971 (IWC 2006 as cited in Reilly et al., 2008). (Reilly, et al., 2008)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no recognized direct negative impacts of Antarctic minke whales on human populations. One could hypothesize, however, that potential food competition with other economically important whale species, such as blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), could have a negative economic impact on their harvest. Larger whale species are considered more valuable in that they provide more meat per unit catch.

Conservation Status

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) currently lists the species as “Data Deficient”. However, it has been suggested that the species has declined by about 60% between the periods 1978–91 and 1991–2004. If the decline is shown to be an artifact or to have been transient, the species would then be classified as “Least Concern” whereas it would be classified as “Endangered” if it was demonstrated to be an actual decline. The Peru population was added to Appendix I of CITES in 1986 and withdrawn from it in 2001. The predicted substantial decline in the extent of Antarctic sea ice may dramatically effect krill populations and the Antarctic minke whale populations that depend on them. (Reilly, et al., 2008)

Other Comments

Antarctic minke whales used to be considered a subspecies of Balaenoptera acutorostrata, B. a. bonaerensis. In the late 1990s, however, it came to be recognized as a separate species, Balaenoptera bonaerensis (Burmeister, 1867). Phylogenetic analysis of the mitochondrial DNA control region led Àrnason et al. (1993) to elevate B. bonaerensis to full species status. Their analysis also led to the conclusion that B. bonaerensis and B. acutorostrata are sister taxa more closely related to each other than to any other species of the genus Balaenoptera. (Àrnason, et al., 1993)

Although the geographic ranges of both minke whale species overlap in the Southern Hemisphere, Balaenoptera bonaerensis is numerically dominant in high southern latitudes (south of 60ºS). By analysis of mitochondrial DNA, Pastene et al. (2007) estimated the divergence of B. acutorostrata and B. bonaerensis to have occurred about 5 million years ago in a period of global warming during the Pliocene. (Pastene, et al., 2007)

A relatively large amount of research has been conducted on the reproductive biology of Antarctic minke whales. Tetsuka et al. (2004) found that there was a very high level of variation in the size of ovaries of the 94 immature females they captured. In addition, they found that ovarian size almost doubled during the prepubertal period. Over time, the developed ovary contains larger but less abundant follicles. Some researchers have even attempted to perform in vitro maturation of Antarctic minke whale oocytes (Iwayama et al., 2005). (Iwayama, et al., 2005; Tetsuka, et al., 2004; Iwayama, et al., 2005; Tetsuka, et al., 2004)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Raphaelle Descoteaux (author), University of Alaska Fairbanks, Link Olson (editor, instructor), University of Alaska Fairbanks.



lives on Antarctica, the southernmost continent which sits astride the southern pole.

Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


a method of feeding where small food particles are filtered from the surrounding water by various mechanisms. Used mainly by aquatic invertebrates, especially plankton, but also by baleen whales.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


an animal that mainly eats plankton


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sound above the range of human hearing for either navigation or communication or both


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)


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Iwayama, H., H. Ishikawa, S. Ohsumi, Y. Fukui. 2005. Attempt at in vitro maturation of minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) oocytes using a portable CO2 incubator. Journal of Reproduction and Development, 51(1): 69-75.

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Konishi, , Tamura, Zenitani, Bando, Kato, Walloe. 2008. Decline in energy storage in the Antarctic minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) in the Southern Ocean. Polar Biology, 31(12): 1509-1520.

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Pastene, L., M. Goto, N. Kanda, A. Zerbini, D. Kerem. 2007. Radiation and speciation of pelagic organisms during periods of global warming: the case of the common minke whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata. Molecular Ecology, 16: 1481-1495.

Perrin, W., R. Brownell Jr. 2002. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Pitman, R., P. Ensor. 2003. Three forms if killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Antarctic waters. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, 5(2): 131-139.

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Tamura, T., K. Konishi. 2006. Feeding habits and prey consumption of Antarctic minke whales, Balaenoptera bonaerensis in JARPA research area.

Tetsuka, M., M. Asada, T. Mogoe, Y. Fukui, H. Ishikawa, S. Ohsumi. 2004. The Pattern of Ovarian Development in the Prepubertal Antarctic Minke Whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis). Journal of Reproduction and Development, 50(4): 381-389.

Thiele, D., E. Chester, S. Moore, A. Sirovic, J. Hidlebrand, A. Friedlaender. 2004. Seasonal variability in whale encounters in the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Deep-Sea Research Part II - Tropical Studies in Oceanography, 51(17-19): 2311-2325.

Thomson, R., D. Butterworth, H. Kato. 1999. Has the age at transition of Southern Hemisphere minke whales declined over recent decades?. Marine Mammal Science, 15(3): 661-682.

Urashima, T., H. Sato, J. Munakata, T. Nakamura, I. Arai, T. Saito, M. Tetsuka, Y. Fukui, H. Ishikawa, C. Lydersen, K. Kovacs. 2002. Chemical characterization of the oligosaccharides in beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) and Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) milk. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology B-Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 132(3): 611-624.

Àrnason, U., A. Gullberg, B. Widegren. 1993. Cetacean mitochondrial DNA control region: sequences of extant baleen whales and two sperm whales species. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 10: 960-970.