Mystery behind death of beaked whale with unusual wounds in California

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Ricky Joseph

The body of a rare type of beaked whale recently ran aground on a California beach, with mysterious wounds on its head and scratch marks all over its body. Experts still don't know what caused the injuries, how the whale died or even what species it belongs to.

The remains of the beaked whale, which is about 4.9m long, were found on the last 15th on a beach in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve A team from the Marine Science Center (CAS) in Noyo collected the body with the help of researchers from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

The group collected samples of the whale's blubber, organs and skull, and sent them for analysis at the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank in South Carolina.

Image: Noyo Marine Science Centre

Little is known about these mysterious whales, which belong to the family of Ziphiidae Scientists believe there are about two dozen species, but only a few have been studied in depth.

However, they know that the beaked whale, in general, is capable of "diving deeper than any other marine mammal," according to a Noyo Center posting, and that they can stay submerged for more than three hours.

That incredible diving ability is one of the main reasons scientists know so little about the beaked whale. "They're not often seen, either alive or dead," said Moe Flannery, senior manager of bird and marine mammal collections at CAS.

The beaked whale had strange injuries

The center's staff noted that the whale's beak had unusual injuries around it, though they couldn't say exactly what caused them.

"There appears to be some kind of trauma near the jaw, but until they take a closer look at the skull itself, it's hard to say what caused it," said Trey Petrey, facilities manager for the center, which helped remove the whale from the beach.

A possible cause for the injuries would be collisions with vehicles. The beaked whale, as well as other cetaceans (dolphins and whales), are among the marine animals at greatest risk of being struck by vessels, because they use sound to navigate, and noise pollution from boats can disorient them, according to a study published in 2020 in the Frontiers in Marine Science.

The beaked whale's body was also marked by scratches on its body and face. However, most of these scratches were probably caused by conflicts with other beaked whales over time.

Most of them have no teeth, except for a wide pair of fang-like teeth in their lower jaw; those teeth are usually unique to males, who use them to fight rivals, said Sascha Hooker, a marine mammal biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland not involved in the rescue.

She adds that the injuries may have been caused by conflicts with other whales, or after previous collisions with vessels.

Whale "lice", a parasite that sticks to the cetacean's skin. Image: Noyo Marine Science Centre

Another detail on the beaked whale carcass were the "lice" on its skin. Whale lice are parasitic shrimp that attach themselves to the skin of cetaceans and spend their entire lives attached to the skin of a single individual, where they filter microbes from the water and sometimes nibble on the host's skin.

A study published in 2018 in Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology pointed out that these whale lice can be analyzed as a way to track whale migration patterns. It is not yet known if this can be done for the stranded beaked whale, but researchers believe they will be able to learn a lot about this type of whale in general after the event.

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