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The cerebellum of humpback whales constitutes about 20% of the total weight of the brain; the brain does not differ much from those of other mysticete whales. The olfactory organs of humpback whales are greatly reduced and it is doubtful whether they have a sense of smell at all. Their eyes are small and adapted to withstand water pressure. Their external auditory passages are narrow, leading to a minute hole on the head not far behind the eye. Humpback females are larger than males. They are one of the few species of mammals for which this is true. The most distictive external features of humpbacks are the flipper size and form, fluke coloration and shape, and dorsal fin shape. Flippers are quite long and can be almost a third of the body length. They are largely white and have knobs on the leading edge. The butterfly-shaped tail flukes bear individually distinctive patterns of gray and white, and have a scalloped trailing edge. The dorsal fin can be a small triangle or sharply falcate, and often has a stepped or humped shape; this is one source of the name "humpback." There are 14 to 35 ventral pleats or grooves. Humpbacks have the greatest relative blubber thickness for their size of any rorqual. Megaptera novaeangliae is second only to blue whales in absolute thickness of blubber. Blubber thickness varies at different times of the year, as well as with age and physiological condition. Baleen plates are usually all black with blackish bristles.
The habitat of humpback whales consists of polar to tropical waters, including the waters of the Artic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, as well as the waters surrounding Antartica and the Bering Strait. During migration, they are found in coastal and deep oceanic waters.