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Study reveals unexpected behavior among beaked whales 

Known for their elusive nature, beaked whales inhabit some of the most inaccessible regions on Earth, making them one of the least understood mammals

Among them, Baird’s beaked whales have recently become the subject of a study that challenges long-held beliefs about their behavior and habitats.

Deep ocean diving

Beaked whales, encompassing 24 known species, have traditionally been associated with deep ocean waters far from land.

These creatures are renowned for their remarkable diving capabilities, with a Cuvier’s beaked whale holding the record for the deepest mammalian dive at 2,992 meters and the longest dive lasting 222 minutes. 

Surprising behavior 

In the latest study, led by whale biologists Olga Filatova and Ivan Fedutin from the University of Southern Denmark, a population of Baird’s beaked whales were found in shallower waters than previously observed. This significant discovery came about during an expedition to the Commander Islands in 2008. Filatova and Fedutin stumbled upon a group of Baird’s beaked whales near the coast.

“We were there to look for killer whales and humpback whales, so we just noted that we had seen a group of Baird’s beaked whales and didn’t do much about it. But we also saw them in the following years, and after five years, we suspected that it was a stable community frequently visiting the same area,” said Filatova. 

“We saw them every year until 2020, when Covid 19 prevented us from going back to the Commander Islands.”

Unexpected habitats 

The experts ultimately found that this population of beaked whales frequents coastal areas within four kilometers from land, residing in waters less than 300 meters deep – conditions that are uncharacteristic for their species.

The presence of Baird’s beaked whales in such unexpected habitats suggests a remarkable adaptation and challenges the conventional wisdom that all beaked whales solely inhabit deep, offshore waters. 

“It means that you cannot expect all individuals within a specific species to behave the same way. This makes it difficult to plan species protection – in this case, for example, you cannot plan based on the assumption that beaked whales only live far out in deep sea. We have shown that they can also live in shallow and coastal waters. There may be other different habitats that we are not aware of yet,” said Filatova.

Social learning behavior

The observations also shed light on the fascinating social dynamics and learning behaviors within whale populations. The study suggests that the Baird’s beaked whales’ preference for shallow coastal waters may have emerged through social learning mechanisms, particularly through “local enhancement.” 

This process, where animals learn the value of a location by following their peers, appears to have led to the formation of a cultural tradition among the Baird’s beaked whales at the Commander Islands. The tradition includes preferences for habitats and prey, marking the first time such a cultural phenomenon has been observed among beaked whales.

Transient whales

The experts meticulously documented 186 individuals of the Baird’s beaked whale species, distinguishing between transient whales, observed only once, and residents, spotted multiple times over the years. 

Interestingly, some transient whales were observed in the shallow waters after interacting with residents, suggesting that these encounters facilitated learning about the area.

“The transients are not as familiar with local conditions as the residents, and therefore, they usually seek food at the depths that are normal for their species. But we actually observed some transients in the shallow area,” said Filatova.

“These were individuals who had some form of social contact with the residents. It must be in that contact that they learned about the shallow water and its advantages.”

Study implications 

The implications of this study extend beyond the scientific community, offering a glimpse into the complex world of marine mammals. 

The research highlights the importance of continued exploration and study of the world’s oceans, where countless mysteries and undiscovered behaviors await. 

Image Credit: Olga Filatova, University of Southern Denmark

The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour

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