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Baleen is a filter-feeder system inside the mouths of baleen whales. The baleen system works when a whale opens its mouth underwater and the whale takes in water. The whale then pushes the water out, and animals such as krill are filtered by the baleen and remain as food source for the whale. Baleen is similar to bristles and is made of keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails and hair. Some whales, such as the bowhead whale, have longer baleen than others. Other whales, such as the gray whale, only use one side of their baleen. These baleen bristles are arranged in plates across the upper jaw of the whale. Baleen is often called whalebone, but that name also can refer to the normal bones of whales, which have often been used as a material, especially as a cheaper substitute for ivory in carving.
Depending on the species, a baleen plate can be 0.5 to 3.5 metres (1.6 to 11.5 ft) long, and weigh up to 90 kilograms (200 lb). Its hairy fringes are called baleen hair or whalebone-hair. They are also called baleen bristles, which in sei whales are highly calcified, calcification functioning to increase their stiffness. Baleen plates are broader at the gumline (base). The plates have been compared to sieves or Venetian blinds.
The oldest true fossils of baleen are only 15 million years old, but baleen rarely fossilizes, and scientists believe it originated considerably earlier than that. This is indicated by baleen-related skull modifications being found in fossils from considerably earlier, including a buttress of bone in the upper jaw beneath the eyes, and loose lower jaw bones at the chin. Baleen is believed to have evolved around thirty million years ago, possibly from a hard, gummy upper jaw, like the one a Dall's porpoise has. In fact, it resembles baleen closely at the microscopic level.
Many early baleen whales also had teeth, but these were probably used only peripherally, or perhaps not at all (again like Dall's porpoise, which catches squid and fish by gripping them against its hard upper jaw).
A whale's baleen plates play the most important role in its filter-feeding process. In order to feed, a baleen whale opens its mouth widely and scoops in dense shoals of prey (such as krill, copepods, small fish and sometimes birds that happen to be near the shoals), together with large volumes of water. It then partly shuts its mouth and presses its tongue against its upper jaw, forcing the water to pass out sideways through the baleen, thus sieving out the prey which it then swallows.
People formerly used baleen (usually referred to as "whalebone") for making numerous items where flexibility and strength were required, including collar stiffeners, buggy whips, parasol ribs and as corset stays. It was commonly used to crease paper; its flexibility kept it from damaging the paper. It was also occasionally used in cable-backed bows. Synthetic materials are now usually used for similar purposes, especially plastic and fibre glass. It is not to be confused with whale's bone meaning the bones of whales, used in carving, for cutlery handles and other uses for the bones of various large species.
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