Whalebone or baleen whales are the largest animals alive, but they feed upon very small organisms such as shrimp, small fish, and similar creatures. It is obvious that an animal the size of a whale would have trouble filling its enormous stomach with such tiny food particles unless it had a special way to concentrate the material.
However, the sheets of whalebone or baleen attached to its upper jaw help it in gathering these small food animals. The sheets are set very close together, and each of them has many long bristles attached to one edge. To secure its food, the whale opens its mouth and swims through schools of small organisms.
When it has a mouth full of water, it closes its mouth, raises its enormous tongue, and lets the water rush out between the plates, the particles of food being retained in the mouth by the straining action of the baleen.
Whalebone, so-called, is not true bone at all, but a flexible horny material similar to the fingernails of man. It was formerly in great demand for use as stays in women’s corsets, but the few women who now insist upon wearing them find that the more romantic whalebone stays have been replaced by thin steel reinforcements. Baleen is now sometimes used for making cigarette cases and other trinkets.