More on the curious world of the beaked whale


It seems as though our blogs about beaked whales are a bit like buses – none for ages and then they all come in a rush.

Only last week, we wrote about the mysterious and elusive strap-toothed beaked whale but we are also learning a little more about two other extraordinarily elusive cetacean species – the gingko-toothed beaked whale and the Blainville's beaked whale.

Everything we know about ginkgo-toothed beaked whales comes (as of 2016) almost entirely from 88 separate whale stranding events, of 96 animals. Of these, 30 occurred in Japan. In February 2022, a stranded whale was reported in Yakumo town, Hokkaido. It was transported to Hakodate Research Centre for Fisheries and Oceans for a necropsy, and was identified as a gingko-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon ginkgodens). This is first report of this species from the colder waters of the North Pacific, and suggests that they may migrate to colder waters in the winter.

Previous strandings have occurred in a wide range of locations, including the US West Coast, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, Thailand, New Zealand, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, China, South Korea, and Mexico—all in temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters.

On December 4th 2023, a newspaper in Thailand reported the stranding of a Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) at Sakom Beach in Thailand’s southern province of Songkhla. The local authorities said that the species had only been recorded by strandings 5 times in Thailand.

Blainville's beaked whale. Photo credit: Lina Verma

When it comes to conservation, scientists have little information to go on for any of the world’s beaked whales.

The IUCN Red List has only produced assessments for two species : Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and the southern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon planifrons). Both of these species are adjudged “Least Concern” by the IUCN. But the other 20 species of beaked whale have all been listed as "Data Deficient", meaning scientists have too little information to make any kind of assessment about their status. It’s hard to see how a species can be labelled as “Least Concern” when what is meant is “Don’t really know much about it at all to be honest!”

As it is, other beaked whales aren’t even on the list as new ones keep being identified. In 2014, scientists proposed a new species of beaked whale - the Deraniyagala's beaked whale (Mesoplodon hotaula) - also based on DNA research. But as of 2016 the IUCN hadn’t taken a look at this species, and it was not distinguishing it from the gingko.

And then in 2021, the Ramari’s beaked-whale (Mesoplodon eueu) was named as an entirely new southern hemisphere beaked whale species - the fifth beaked whale species to be described or elevated to species status in the past few decades.

And still they keep coming. For over 16 years, scientists working off the coast of Hawaii have been recording the distinctive sounds of a whale they’ve never been able to visually identify – so a whale they’ve heard but never seen, aside from a brief flash of a dorsal fin. They’ve even named the whale the 'Cross Seamount beaked whale', although they also admit that without a visual identification, it might be a gingko after all.

In 2014, scientists documented a Cuvier’s beaked whale diving 2,992 meters down for more than 135 minutes, while a modern nuclear submarine would collapse at less than 800 meters. It seems inevitable, which is both exciting and necessary for their conservation, that in the coming years we’ll be discovering a lot more about these incredible animals who have a continuing capacity to surprise us all.

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