In 1823, after mistaking a fragment of skull for a fossil, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier described a seemingly extinct species of whale. Several decades after his death, it became apparent that, far from being extinct, Cuvier’s beaked whale was actually a relatively abundant, living species, occurring in offshore waters of all the world’s oceans (1) (2) (4). Like the other beaked whales, this enigmatic cetacean
[ ]has a robust, cigar-shaped body, a small dorsal fin set well back on the body, and relatively small flippers (2). The gently sloping forehead of this species grades into a short, stubby beak, while the lower jaw juts out well beyond the upper jaw (2) (5). Skin colouration varies considerably amongst individual whales, but most lie somewhere between dark slate-grey and rusty brown (4) (5). With age, and especially in males, the head, neck and back become lighter, such that the heads of very old males appear almost completely white (2) (4) (5). However, an even more distinct feature of adult males, are two large, cylindrical teeth which protrude somewhat incongruously from the tip of the lower jaw (4) (5). The extensive linear scarring, commonly seen on the sides of males, is evidence of the damage these teeth can inflict when males fight amongst each other for females (2) (4) (5). In addition, both sexes often have white oval scars, which are most likely inflicted by lampreys or cookie-cutter sharks (2).
- Also known as
- goosebeak whale, goose-beaked whale.
- baleine de Cuvier, ziphius, Ziphius.
- Ballena De Cuvier, Ziphio De Cuvier.
- Length: 6.1 m (2)
Cuvier’s beaked whale biology
Very seldom seen at sea, almost everything known about Cuvier’s beaked dolphin is based on studies of stranded animals (2) (5) (7). Consequently very little is known about the behaviour and ecology of this elusive species. Nonetheless, recent studies using digital tags are beginning to shed light on its extraordinary foraging habits. In particular, this species has been recorded diving to depths of nearly 1,900 metres, the deepest dives ever reported for any air-breathing mammal. Leaving the surface for up to 85 minutes at a time, the whales use echolocation to hunt prey in the lightless depths (6). Very little analysis has been undertaken on the stomach contents of this species, but deep sea-squid are thought to be the main source of food, with fish, and, to a lesser extent, crustaceans, also being taken (1) (2) (5).
Although often seen alone, groups of two to seven whales are most common (5) (7). Its inconspicuousness at sea is jointly attributed to its low, diffuse blow and its tendency to avoid vessels (2). The lifespan of Cuvier’s beaked whale is thought to be at least 25 years (5).
Cuvier’s beaked whale range
With a distribution that comprises all the oceans and most of the seas, with the exception of very high polar regions, Cuvier’s beaked whale is one of the most widespread and abundant beaked whales in the world (1) (2) (4).
Cuvier’s beaked whale habitat
Cuvier’s beaked whale is normally found in waters deeper than 200 metres, rarely close to the coast unless the continental shelf is particularly narrow and steep (1). Recent studies indicate that this species forages on average at depths of around 1000 metres (6).
Cuvier’s beaked whale status
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
Cuvier’s beaked whale threats
With Cuvier’s beaked whales found stranded more often than any other species of beaked whale, its global population is thought to be relatively large (1) (5). Coupled with its widespread distribution, this species is not believed to be undergoing significant declines. Nonetheless, there are a variety of threats that may be causing localised declines in its abundance (1). Although historically it has never been hunted in significant numbers, it is regularly reported as by-catch in other fisheries. Furthermore, overfishing may be reducing the amount of ‘prey’ available to species such as Cuvier’s beaked whale. Probably the greatest current concern is the effect of acoustic pollution, associated with sonar and seismic exploration, on this species (1) (5) (7). In recent years, mass strandings of Cuvier’s beaked whale have been found to correlate closely with military activities (1).
Cuvier’s beaked whale conservation
Given concerns on the effect of acoustic pollution on Cuvier’s beaked whale and other beaked whales, efforts are being made to develop strategies that will reduce the chances of beaked whales being accidentally exposed to sonar and other high-intensity noise sources (1). In particular, the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS) has made recommendations that management measures be implemented to avoid use of military sonar in areas known to contain habitat especially suited to Cuvier's beaked whale. In addition, ACCOBAMS is encouraging further research to assess the impact of acoustic pollution on cetaceans, and most notably beaked whales (1) (8).
The UK Biodiversity Action Plan
for this species is available at UK BAP
Find out more
To find out more about the conservation of cetaceans see:
To find out more about the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area see:
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- A whale, dolphin or porpoise.
- A group comprising all whales, dolphins and porpoises.
- Dorsal fin
- The unpaired fin found on the back of the body of fish, or the raised structure on the back of most cetaceans.
IUCN Red List (October, 2008)
Heyning, J.E. and Mead, J.G. (2008) Cuvier’s beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris. In: Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B. and Thewissen, J.G.M. (Eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, Second Edition. Academic Press, London.
CITES (October, 2008)
Carwardine, M., Hoyt, E., Fordyce, R.E. and Gill, P. (1998) Whales and Dolphins, The Ultimate Guide to Marine Mammals. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
American Cetacean Society. (2004) American Cetacean Society Factsheet: Cuvier’s beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris. American Cetacean Society, San Pedro, California. Available at:
Tyack, P.L., Johnson, M., Aguilar Soto, N., Sturlese, A. and Madsen, P.T. (2006) Extreme diving of beaked whales. Journal of Experimental Biology, 209: 4238 - 4253.
Convention on Migratory Species (February, 2009)
ACCOBAMS (February, 2009)