(opens in a new tab)
The corpse of a rarely seen type of beaked whale recently washed up on a California beach with mysterious wounds on its face and scrapes all over its body. Experts don’t know what caused the injuries, how the whale died, or even what species this sharp-nosed whale belongs to.
The unusual remains of the dolphin-like whale, which measured about 16 feet (4.9 meters) long, were found May 15 on a beach at Jug Handle State Nature Reserve near Fort Bragg. A team from the nearby Noyo Center for Marine Science recovered the body with the help of researchers from the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) in San Francisco. The group collected samples of the whale’s blubber, organs and skull and sent them to the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank in Charleston, South Carolina, for analysis.
Little is known about these mysterious whales, which belong to the family Ziphiidae. Scientists believe that there are about two dozen species, but of these only a few species, including Baird’s Beaked Whale (Berardius bairdii) and Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris), have been widely studied. However, scientists do know that these whales can “dive deeper than any other marine mammal”, according to a Facebook post (opens in a new tab) by the Noyo Center, and they can stay underwater for more than three hours.
This incredible diving ability is one of the main reasons scientists know so little about beaked whales. “They’re not seen very often, alive or dead,” which makes this stranding “really significant,” Moe Flannery, senior manager of seabird and marine mammal collections at CAS, told the news site. SFGate (opens in a new tab).
Related: Nearly 30 pilot whales die after mass stranding in New Zealand
The recently beached specimen is likely a Hubbs’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon carlhubbsi) or a Stejneger’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon stejnegeri), Flannery told SFGate. However, it could also be a ginkgo-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon ginkgodens) or a pygmy beaked whale (Peruvian mesoplodon), Sascha Hooker, a marine mammal biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who was not involved in the recovery process, told Live Science in an email. DNA sequencing of tissue samples from the whale will help determine the exact species.
(opens in a new tab)
The Noyo Center team noted that the whale’s beak had unusual and nasty injuries around it, but scientists couldn’t say what caused the injuries. “There appears to be trauma near the jawbone, but until they get a closer look at the skull itself, it’s hard to tell where it came from,” Trey Petrey, facilities manager at interpretation of the Noyo Center that helped remove the dead whale from the beach, told SFGate.
One of the possible causes of whale injuries is a collision with a ship. Beaked whales and other cetaceans (the group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) are among the marine animals most at risk of being struck by a boat because they use sound for navigation and noise pollution from boats can disorient them, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Marine Science Frontiers (opens in a new tab).
It will also be difficult to tell whether the injuries to the dead whale were caused before or after the body washed up on the beach, Hooker added.
The corpse of the dead whale was also scarred with scratches covering its face and body. But most of these scratches, known as rake marks, were likely inflicted over time by other beaked whales. Most beaked whales are toothless except for a single large pair of tusk-like teeth in their lower jaw; these teeth are usually reserved for males, who use them to fight their breeding rivals, Hooker said. It’s possible the rake marks on the dead whale were inflicted in past duels, she added, although it’s not yet clear whether the dead whale is a male or a female. It is also possible that some of the scratches were caused by past collisions with ships that were not fatal.
“It’s hard to tell from the photos, but the physical condition looks a bit poor,” with the spine appearing quite pronounced in some images, Hooker said. This could suggest the whale was struggling to find food or had potentially ingested plastic, which has become a big problem for beaked whales, she noted. (Whales that swallow plastic may starve if indigestible matter cannot be expelled; plastic that becomes lodged in a whale’s innards prevents it from filling its stomach with food and may affect the animal’s digestion.) Analysis of the contents of the whale’s stomach will determine if this has played a role in his death.
(opens in a new tab)
Another notable detail of the beached carcass was the presence of a whale louse on the cetacean’s skin. Whale lice are tiny parasitic shrimp that attach themselves to cetaceans and live their entire lives clinging to the skin of a single individual, where they filter germs out of the water and sometimes bite the skin of their host. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology (opens in a new tab), scientists have found that whale lice, which are often specific to a single cetacean species, can be analyzed to track whale migration patterns. But it’s unclear whether the dead beaked whale’s louse has kept track of its host’s travels.
Nevertheless, researchers at the Noyo Center hope that this unfortunate event will teach us a lot about beaked whales.
“I think it’s very humbling sometimes to see these animals washed up on the shore and to see them so close,” Petrey told SFGate. “It’s a bit heartbreaking to see them dead, but it’s a good experience for anyone interested in marine science to have the opportunity to see such a specimen.”
Originally posted on Live Science.