Vol 10, Issue 2, May 2023

Nursing Behavior in Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus)


Sarano, F., Sarano, V., Tonietto, M-L., Yernaux, A., Jung, J-L., Arribart, M., Girardet, J., Preud’homme, A., Heuzey, R., Delfour, F., Glotin, H., Charrier, I., & Adam, O. (2023). Nursing behavior in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Animal Behavior and Cognition, 10(2), 105-131.  https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


In mammals, lactation is the universal behavior of feeding offspring and has a fundamental nutritional and social value with offspring staying near their mothers. In order to obtain milk, terrestrial mammal offspring squeeze the breast of lactating females and suckle the nipples with their tongues. In the specific case of cetacean species, it was reported that lactating females intentionally eject milk from their mammary slit into the calves’ mouths. Nursing behavior in sperm whales has already been broadly described, but the results of our current study, based on 127 underwater videos, recording over 7 years and displaying explicit nursing behavior, bring a higher level of understanding. We first showed that sperm whale calves are proactive in getting milk. We were then able to illustrate and describe with a high level of precision their suckling behavior: firstly, the calf bumps its head onto the female’s genital area to signal the mother its willingness to suckle; secondly, the calf introduces its lower jawbone into the genital slit, this action makes the nipple pop up from its slit; thirdly, the calf squeezes the nipple with its tongue against the hard palate and suckles; fourthly, the calf removes its jawbone from the female and swims off. Moreover, our underwater visual observations provided the first direct evidence for allosuckling in sperm whales, a situation during which a calf obtains milk from an adult female who is not its mother.


Sperm whale, Nursing, Allonursing, Suckling, Underwater observations