One of the more easily distinguished members of its genus, Gray’s beaked whale has a particularly long, slender snout, or ‘beak’, which is white in adults, with a straight mouthline, and which is often raised up out of the water when the whale surfaces (3) (5) (6). The spindle-shaped body is dark bluish-grey to black on the upper surface, with a paler underside, white patches in the genital region and sometimes on the forehead, and often bears white oval scars from the bites of cookie-cutter sharks (2) (3) (6). The dorsal fin is small and set quite far back on the body, the tail is unnotched, and the small flippers fit into depressions in the body, reducing water resistance when the whale is swimming (3) (5) (7). Juveniles have dark patches around the eyes and on top of the head, lighter bellies, and a shorter and darker beak than the adult (3) (8).
Mature male Gray’s beaked whales possess a single pair of functional teeth, which are triangular in shape and located midway along the lower jaw (2) (3) (9). These teeth project up, outside of the mouth, and can be seen when the mouth is closed (5) (10). In the female, these teeth are much smaller and do not usually erupt above the gums (3) (6) (10). Both sexes also have a row of small, non-functional teeth in the upper jaw (3) (9).
- Also known as
- Haast’s beaked whale, scamperdown whale, small-toothed beaked whale, southern beaked whale.
- Mésoplodon De Gray.
- Ballena De Pico De Gray, Zifio De Gray.
- Length: up to 5.6 m (2) (3)
- up to 1500 kg (2)
Gray’s beaked whale biology
The elusive nature of Gray’s beaked whale, together with its far offshore habitat and apparent rarity, mean that little is known about the biology and behaviour of this marine species (5) (6). Like other member of the genus, it is likely to feed mainly on cephalopods such as squid (1) (5) (10), with most prey being caught in deep water, below depths of 200 metres, and believed to be swallowed whole (3) (5). Some fish may also be taken (5) (10), and prey is thought to be sucked into the mouth with the aid of a muscular tongue and throat pleats, which allow the mouth floor to be distended (5).
The teeth of Gray’s beaked whale are no longer needed for feeding, and in the adult male these have evolved into fighting weapons, with males often bearing long, white tooth scars, which are thought to be evidence of dominance battles (3) (5) (10). Most Gray’s beaked whales are seen alone or in pairs or small groups, though a mass stranding of 28 animals has suggested that this species may be more social than other beaked whales (3) (6) (9). Very little information is available on the breeding behaviour of Gray’s beaked whale (10), but, as in all cetaceans, females give birth to a single calf (5).
Gray’s beaked whale range
Gray’s beaked whale is found throughout cool, temperate waters of the Southern Hemisphere, with records from Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters, as well as around New Zealand, southern Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile and Peru (1) (3) (11). However, as with all members of this group, Gray’s beaked whale is rarely sighted and often difficult to identify out at sea, and information on its distribution is largely based on strandings (5) (7). There is a single record of a stranding in the Netherlands, but it is thought that this was an unusual occurrence, outside of the species’ normal range (1) (3) (7). Many sightings occur around New Zealand and the Chatham Islands (1) (3), though this may merely be due to more intensive recording efforts here (9).
Gray’s beaked whale habitat
Gray’s beaked whale typically inhabits deep waters, far from shore (1) (5) (10). Although some sightings have been made in shallower waters (8), these are usually of sick animals coming in to strand (1).
Gray’s beaked whale status
Classified as Data Deficient (DD) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).
Gray’s beaked whale threats
Although possibly not as rare as some other Mesoplodon species, there is currently no information available on the global abundance or population trends of Gray’s beaked whale (1) (3) (5). Although not directly hunted (1) (5) (12), individuals may occasionally be killed by gillnets and long line fishing gear (1) (5) (10), and even in low levels this may pose a significant threat to the species (12). Other potential threats include trauma from loud, man-made sounds, such as those generated by military activities (1) (12), as well as plastic waste, which may be swallowed and cause death by blocking the whale’s digestive tract (1). There is also evidence that individuals may occasionally be struck by boats (8). Gray’s beaked whale may be vulnerable to ocean warming as a result of climate change, though the effects of such changes on the species are not yet known (1).
Gray’s beaked whale conservation
Gray’s beaked whale is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning international trade in this species should be carefully controlled (4). However, the lack of information on Gray’s beaked whale means that research into its biology and abundance, as well as into the potential threats it faces, is desperately needed before appropriate conservation measures, if necessary, can be put into place (1) (9). Recent molecular studies (13) may help improve otherwise difficult species identification in this and other beaked whales, aiding research and helping to increase our knowledge of this poorly understood group of marine mammals.
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- From the Greek for ‘head-foot’, a class of molluscs that occur only in marine habitats. All species have grasping tentacles, and either an internal or external shell. Includes nautiloids, cuttlefish, squids, octopuses, and extinct ammonites and belemnites.
- A group comprising all whales, dolphins and porpoises.
- A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
IUCN Red List (February, 2009)
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Jefferson, T.A., Webber, M.A. and Pitman, R.L. (2008) Marine Mammals of the World: A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification. Academic Press, London.
CITES (February, 2009)
Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B. and Thewissen, J.G.M. (2002) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego, California.
Jefferson, T.A., Leatherwood, S. and Webber, M.A. (1993) FAO Species Identification Guide. Marine Mammals of the World. FAO, Rome.
Kinze, C.C. (2002) Photographic Guide to the Marine Mammals of the North Atlantic. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Dalebout, M.L. and Russell, K.G. (2004) Observations of live Gray’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon grayi) in Mahurangi Harbour, North Island, New Zealand, with a summary of at-sea sightings. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 34(4): 347 - 356.
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Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Convention on Migratory Species (February, 2009)
Reeves, R.R., Smith, B.D., Crespo, E.A. and Notarbartolo di Sciari, G. (2003) Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World’s Cetaceans. IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland.
Dalebout, M.L., Van Helden, A., Van Waerebeek, K. and Baker, C.S. (1998) Molecular genetic identification of southern hemisphere beaked whales (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Molecular Ecology, 7: 687 - 694.