• Ben Neely

Messin' with Mesoplodonts

Today, we release the genomes of three Mesoplodont whales: the Blainville's beaked whale Mesoplodon densirostris, the Gervais' beaked whale Mesoplodon europaeus, and the Stejneger's beaked whale Mesoplodon stejnegeri.

The three Mesoplodont whales from today's release: the Blainville's beaked whale (top), Gervais' beaked whale (bottom left) and Stejneger's beaked whale (bottom right). Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

These three species of Mesoplodon are beaked whales in the Ziphiidae family. Interestingly, all three have interesting nicknames: Blainville’s are referred to as the “dense-beaked whale”, Gervais’ are referred to as the “Gulf Stream beaked whale” and Stejneger’s are referred to as the “saber-toothed whale”. There are more than 20 species of Ziphiidae, but the vast majority of known species are Mesoplodonts (15 species). The beaked whale family has relatively small body sizes (roughly 15 to 20 feet long and 2000 to 3000 lbs), as well as elusive and shy behavior around humans, and inconspicuous blow. They are also difficult to identify in the wild since they mostly lack easily discernible physical characteristics. These traits make them difficult to study, to say the least. Although beaked whales comprise roughly a quarter of recognized cetacean species, information on their behavior and population numbers is largely unknown. For instance, a live Gervais’ beaked whale wasn’t seen in the wild until 1998 (though here is some video of one swimming).

Although we know very little of these elusive cetaceans, we do know they are deep divers. Beaked whales eat deep-sea and open-ocean species of fish (e.g., mackerel, sardines, and saury), as well as crustaceans, sea cucumbers, squid, and octopus. They use echolocation on their deep dives to find prey, and once located they suction them into their mouth. These three beaked whales inhabit deep waters (600 to 5000 ft) around the northern hemisphere. The Stejneger's beaked whale prefers the cold water of the North Pacific Ocean is the only Mesolplodont in Alaskan waters, while the Blaineville’s beaked whale lives in tropical to temperate waters worldwide including the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. (The specific animal assembled today is of the Western North Atlantic stock.) The Gervais’ beaked whale prefers deep warmer seas of the Atlantic Ocean, but can be found occasionally in colder waters. (The specific animal assembled here is from the Western North Atlantic stock.)

We are also working on hard on other cetaceans, including more beaked whales like the Cuvier's beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris, so stay tuned as we have a whale of time!

All genomes were generated following the $1K strategy described in (Dudchenko et al., 2018). See our Methods page for more details.

This work was performed under Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP) Permit No. 18786-03 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Blainville's beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) specimen used in this study was collected by NOAA (Wayne McFee) from Sullivan's Island, SC. The Gervais' beaked whale (Mesoplodon europaeus) specimen used in this study was collected by NOAA (Wayne McFee) from Georgetown, SC. The Stejneger's beaked whale (Mesoplodon stejnegeri) specimen used in this study was collected by Alaska Sealife Center (Pam Tuomi) from Whittier, AK. The specimens were provided by the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank, which is maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the NIST Biorepository, which is operated under the direction of NMFS with the collaboration of USGS, USFWS, MMS, and NIST through the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and the Alaska Marine Mammal Tissue Archival Project.

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