Genus Mesoplodon - Beaked whales:
Introduction and Sources
Mesoplodont whales are relatively small, ranging in size between
3.9 and 6.2 m. Their body is spindle-shaped, with a small, triangular
dorsal fin located about two thirds between the beak and the tail.
The flippers are small and narrow and fit into pigmented depressions
in the body. The unnotched flukes are usually straight across the
trailing edge or even slightly convex. A single pair of external
throat groves may aid in suction feeding. The head is small and
tapered and the melon is also small, blending into the beak without
a crease. The blowhole is semicircular with the ends pointed forward.
Most species show sexual dimorphism, as only adult males have functional
teeth (tusks) and show excessive and conspicuous body scarring resulting
from the usage of these teeth by other males in intraspecific fights
The distribution of many Mesoplodon species is known almost entirely
from records of stranded individuals. This situation is due to the
difficulty in making specific identifications of these animals at
sea and the relative rarity of sighting them at all (Mead, 1989).
Until today, M.
ginkgodens and M.
hectori have almost never been identified alive in the wild
Furthermore, the distributional conclusions that are drawn from
stranded animals are tentative due to the likelihood that these
animals were diseased and strayed from their normal range. It is
only when there is a large sample of strandings that have come from
the same area that relatively firm distributional conclusions can
be drawn. Care must also be taken in the weight which one gives
to negative distributional data. In some cases there may be animals
frequenting the waters and stranding upon the shores but there has
not been enough cetological research in the area to bring the strandings
to the attention of scientists (Mead, 1989).
Unfortunately, correct identification of mesoplodont specimens also
seems to be fraught with difficulties. Dalebout et al. (1998) report
that to assist in the species-level identification of stranded and
hunted beaked whales, they compiled a database of 'reference' sequences
from the mitochondrial DNA control region, for 15 of the 20 described
ziphiid species. Reference samples for eight species were obtained
from stranded animals in New Zealand and South Australia. Sequences
for a further seven species were obtained from a previously published
report. This database was used to identify 20 'test' samples obtained
from incompletely documented strandings around New Zealand. Their
analyses showed that four of these specimens (20% !) had initially
Much of the research on mesoplodont whales is fairly recent: M.
peruvianus was first described in 1991, M. perrini
in 2002 and M. bahamondi, described in 1995, turned out to
be the same species described by John Gray in 1874 , as M. traversii
(Gray, 1874) then forgotten by science since 1875 upon being registered
equivocally as a mere synonym of M.
layardii. There are surely more surprises to be expected.
According to Pitman (2002) so few mesoplodonts have been reliably
identified at sea that it is impossible to accurately determine
the population status of any species, although, based on stranding
data, at least some species may not be as rare as the sightings
records suggest. M.
grayi, M. layardii and M.
densirostris seem to be widespread and fairly common, whereas
e.g. M. bowdoini, M. perrini, M. traversii and M. hectori
are rather rare (Pitman 2009).
The best available abundance estimate of beaked whales for the western
North Atlantic stock is 3,196, whereas the estimate for the northern
USA Atlantic is 2,600 and for the southern USA Atlantic 596 (data
from 1998, in Waring et al. 2001).
Most published estimates of abundance or density are based on visual
line-transect studies that found narrower effective strip widths
and lower trackline detection probabilities for beaked whales than
for most other cetaceans. Published density estimates range from
0.4-44 whales per 1,000 km² for small beaked whales and up
to 68 whales per 1,000 km² for large beaked whales (Barlow
et al. 2006).
According to Pitman (2002) mesoplodont whales normally inhabit deep
ocean waters (>2000m deep) or continental slopes (200-2000 m)
and only rarely stray over the continental shelf. Whereas M.
densirostris is found in all tropical and warm temperate oceans,
most species are restricted to one or two broad ocean areas. The
distribution of M. perrini could be considered localized
(C.D.MacLeod, pers. comm. to author, 2003).
M. layardii may undertake some limited migration to lower
latitudes during winter (Pitman, 2002) and M.
bidens may undergo migration in the eastern Atlantic (MacLeod
et al. unpublished).
Mead (1989) reports that all beaked whales feed primarily on deep-water
mesopelagic squid, although some fish may also be taken (Pitman,
2002; MacLeod et al. 2003). Most prey are probably caught at depths
exceeding 200m via suction, as the dentition is much reduced and
the mouth and tongue are highly adapted for this feeding method
(Pitman, 2002). Diving durations of 20-45min have been reported,
after which groups of animals surface together and stay within one
body length of each other (Pitman, 2002).
Stomach samples of three beaked whale genera Hyperoodon, Mesoplodon
and Ziphius primarily contained cephalopod and fish remains,
although some also contained crustaceans. Mesoplodon spp.
were found to contain the most fish, with some species containing
nothing but fish remains, while the southern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon
planifrons) and Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius
cavirostris) rarely, if ever, contained fish. Of cephalopods
identified, Histiotheutid, Gonatid, Cranchiid and Onychoteuthid
species usually contributed most to prey numbers and biomass. There
was a wide range of species and families of cephalopods recorded
from stomach contents, with no obvious preference for bioluminescent
prey species, vertical migrating prey species or prey species with
specific body conditions. Whales of the genus Mesoplodon
generally contained smaller prey, such as cephalopods under 500g
in weight, compared with other beaked whales. Hyperoodon
and Ziphius frequently contained much larger cephalopods
with many important species having a mean weight of over 1000g.
This suggests that Mesoplodon occupies a separate dietary
niche from Hyperoodon and Ziphius, which may be an
example of niche separation. In contrast, Hyperoodon and
Ziphius appear to occupy very similar dietary niches but
have geographically segregated distributions, with Hyperoodon
occupying cold-temperate to polar waters and Ziphius occupying
warm-temperate to tropical waters (MacLeod et al. 2003).
Although there has never been a directed fishery, some animals are
occasionally taken by opportunistic whalers, or die in drift nets
and lost fishing gear, as well as in longline fisheries (Pitman,
2002; 2009). Off the north-east US coast, 46 fishery-related mortalities
were observed in the pelagic drift gillnet fishery between 1989
and 1998: 24 Sowerby's, 4 True's and 17 unidentified beaked whales
(Waring et al. 2001).
Currently, the biggest threat to mesoplodonts may be anthropogenic
noise sources associated with airgun arrays (seismic exploration)
and military mid-frequency sonar (2-10 kHz). Necropsies of mass-stranded
beaked whales exposed to these sound sources lead to the hypothesis
that mortality may be caused by gas-bubble disease induced by behavioural
responses to acoustic exposure (Cox et al. 2006). The authors conclude
further that current monitoring and mitigation methods for beaked
whales are ineffective for detecting and protecting them from adverse
sound exposure. However, Moretti et al. (2006) tested passive acoustic
detection of beaked whales (M. densirostris) using distributed
bottom-mounted hydrophones in the Bahamas, a first promising step
in that direction.
Evidence from stranded individuals of several similar species indicates
that they have swallowed discarded plastic items, which may lead
to starvation and eventually death (Taylor et al. 2008).
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