Even as astronomers peer deeper into space for signs of life on the rapidly expanding catalog of exoplanets, there are still myriad understudied forms of life in the depths of our own planet. There are air-breathing mammals in the sea that we know less about than celestial objects millions of miles away.
True’s beaked whales, for example. One of the 22 species in the Ziphiidae family, they are related to other toothed whales such as dolphins, sharing an elongated mouth, or “beak.” As with the sperm whale, True’s beaked whales are deep divers who feed on squid but are far more mysterious than their more famous cousins, never having received the Herman Melville treatment. With both a low profile and insignificant spout at the surface, True’s beaked whales are seldom observed and little understood.
Now, for the first time, researchers have captured underwater footage of these secretive mammals. Working off the coast of the Azores and Canary islands, where deep water close to shore allows easier study of these creatures, researchers captured a short video of a small group of True’s beaked whales swimming close to the surface, as well as images of a calf. Researchers now believe these islands may be a common gathering area for the elusive whales.
True’s beaked whales get their name from Smithsonian curator Frederick W. True, who first described the species based on a whale that became stranded on a beach in North Carolina. Identifying any one species of the 22 beaked whales in family Ziphiidae has been a difficult task in part because of similarities in, or general lack of, distinct physical traits. Three of these species have been discovered only within the past two decades, including one in 2016. The researchers working around the Azores and Canary Islands recently found a beached True’s beaked whale with coloration never before seen in the species, which would have further complicated the process if the animal had not been identified genetically.
Given enough time, people and technology, the oceans of earth may yet reveal as many wonders as the icy ocean of Europa.