Subject: beaked whales

Mike Williamson (
Tue, 16 Sep 1997 17:01:27 GMT+1200

Dear Shirley and everyone in the class, 

Thank you for your questions. 

You asked if I could explain a bit more about my research looking at the evolutionary relationships of 
the beaked whales. 

The beaked whales remain one of the least known of all groups of mammals. Approximately twenty 
different species of beaked whales have been described, but many of these are known from only a handful 
of stranded animals or from skeletal remains. Some have never been seen alive!  Unlike many other
species of whales, most beaked whales are rarely seen at sea. They live in very deep ocean 
trench areas and may actively avoid boats. Most of what we know about beaked whales has been 
gathered from strandings.
      I'm trying to figure out the relationships between these many different species of beaked whales, and 
find out how this family as a whole is related to other whales and dolphins. The beaked whale fossil record 
stretches back to the early Miocene, about 25 million years ago, which makes them one of the oldest of all families 
of whales currently found in our oceans. They appear to have split off from the main line quite early on in whale
evolutionary history, and still have many features in common with some of the earliest whale fossils.
   The problem then in trying to study this strange group of whales is first finding them (or rather waiting for a stranding)
and then trying to compare the different species to each other. This is where genetics can help a lot. We get DNA
from tiny skin samples that we take from dead stranded beaked whales, and look at different genes to get information
on how these whales are related to each other. Even if a whale has been lying on a the beach for a few weeks and is
so rotten and smelly that its hard to even see that it was a whale at some time, we can still get DNA from it!  
So, overall, I spend my time going to strandings and getting skin samples from fresh and rotting dead whales, and 
working in the lab doing genetic work on these samples to try to find out what the beaked whales have been up to 
in an evolutionary sense for the last 25 million years.

I hope that makes things clearer regarding my research.

To answer Danielle and Anna's question, 'How thick is beaked whale blubber?'
In beaked whales found around New Zealand the blubber is usually about 4-5 cm thick.
It may be slightly thicker in species found in colder waters.

In answer to David and Michael K., 'How many beaked whales are there in the world?'
As I mentioned, about 20 different species have been described, but because we know so
little about any of them we really have no idea at all as to how many of each species there are.

Reggie and Neil, you asked if I had ever taken samples from a right whale or blue whale...
If you mean stranded animals, not personally, but we have had both of these species
strand here in the last few months, and I have received samples from them, thanks to the 
New Zealand Department of Conservation which helps us out a lot. If you mean live animals, 
out at sea, the answer is again no, but one of the other people in our lab, Nathalie Patenaude, is
looking at right whales in the New Zealand subantarctic islands for her PhD, and has gone down
there for the last three years and collected skin samples from these animals using a crossbow and 
small biopsy dart.

To answer Carry and Heather's question,'What does the skin of a whale feel like?'
The skin of a whale is usually very soft and smooth. This does depend however on where you touch it, and 
what species of whale it is. Sperm whales can get pretty wrinkly.
Right whales have callosities on their heads. The heads of gray whales often have
many barnacles attached, and humpback whales may also have some barnacles on their throat grooves.
 Baleen whales also have a small number of bristles on their heads, left over from the time
when very earliest ancestors of whales were still land-dwelling mammals and were covered in hair.

Sean and Michael M. asked, 'How many molecules in a blue whale?'
Well, to calculate that I would have to know the molecular weight of a blue whale molecule. Ask your
chemistry teacher about that one. At a rough estimate, billions and billions! 

And lastly, Nina and Melissa, who asked, 'Do beaked whales have a rostrum?'
The rostrum is the front part of a whale's skull, the part where the teeth are found in 
toothed whales, and from which the baleen plates hang in baleen whales. All whales have
a rostrum therefore, but in some species it is very very short (eg in porpoises) and in others
 it is very long, like in some species of beaked whales. Having a long thin rostrum is quite a distinctive
feature of beaked whales, and so give the family their name. ie the rostrum is the 'beak' of beaked whales.

Thanks again for your questions


Ms. Merel Dalebout
Ecology & Evolution Research Group
Thomas Building, Level 1
School of Biological Sciences
University of Auckland
Private Bag 92-019
Wellesley Street
Auckland, N.Z.
Ph:09-373-7599 ext. 4588
Fax: 09-373-7417