May 7, 2013
WARNINGS: What you are about to look at is gross! Also, this post is not about L.A. urban nature, it is about Orange County marine nature. But, I contend that some beaches are pretty dang urban and Orange County isn't that different from L.A.–right? Plus, this is sort of sea monster-ish and therefore awesome, I couldn't resist!
This is not the rotting carcass of a sea monster! *Note the ribs still covered with rotting flesh, and the exposed vertebrae. Jim said it smelled pretty awfull. So, what is that mass of rotting flesh? According to Jim Dines, our excellent Mammalogy Collection's Manager, it is a beached beaked whale. Here's the account Jim wrote up for our Research & Collections newsletter: "On April 30th, Dave Janiger and Jim Dines retrieved the decomposed carcass of a Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) from Crystal Cove State Beach in south Orange County. Beaked whales are uncommon in museum collections and much about these unusual cetaceans remains unknown, making this new specimen an important acquisition for the marine mammal collection. As recently as 2002, a new species of whale, Perrin’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon perrini), was described using specimens from our collection." Before this week, I had never even heard of a beaked whale. Apparently, this isn't that surprising as they are fairly rare and elusive. They, like dolphins and sperm whales, belong to the Odontoceti group, aka the toothed whales. But, there are only 21 known species in the world, some of which have only been described from their washed-up remains! Wild encounters with some of these species are considered a rare treat, even so for the scientists that spend their lives studying them. This is because they are amazing divers and spend extended periods of time diving to great depths in the open ocean. One way scientists distinguish between the species is through an interesting adaptation male whales have on their head. As a male beaked whale becomes an adult, teeth erupt out of their lower jaws and seemingly jut out of their heads, sort of like horns or antlers in terrestrial mammals. Just like male deer or moose use their antlers to fight over mating rights, beaked whales use their erupted head teeth (fyi, that is not the scientific term) to do the same. If I'm ever lucky enough to encounter live beaked whales, I hope beyond hope that I'll get to witness two males battling it out with their awesome teeth. Just imagine!
Arnoux's beaked whale Photo courtesy of Soler97