The first conclusive evidence of a rare whale species - the True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus) - inhabiting a region of the North East Atlantic has been confirmed by a research team involving UCL.
Images taken during a wildlife photography trip in the Bay of Biscay in July 2018 have given conservationists the opportunity to study this species in exquisite new detail.
Researchers analysed the images and uncovered an unusual physical feature on one animal: two additional protruding teeth were apparent behind the normal pair of tusks.
This is a unique observation, never before recorded in True’s beaked whales, according to the research published in PeerJ - the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences.
James Robbins, lead author on the paper for ORCA, the whale and dolphin charity which runs the trip in partnership with Jessops Academy, and the University of Plymouth, said: "This species is rarely reported as having been seen in the North East Atlantic, with most of the very limited information we have coming from individuals stranded on beaches.
"Any information on largely unknown whale species is critical to gain an insight into their lives and biology. These photographs of True’s beaked whales captured by members of the public therefore represent exciting new findings."
Observed from Brittany Ferries ship Pont-Aven, the research confirmed the first conclusive evidence that True’s beaked whales inhabit the North East Atlantic.
During the study, the authors consulted a number of independent experts, as well as comparing the images with skull samples at both the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Study co-author Ellen Coombs, PhD candidate at UCL and the Natural History Museum, said: "This confirmed sighting highlights just how important the Bay of Biscay is as a suitable home for these beaked whales and many other whales and dolphins. We need to be doing more to conserve and protect this habitat.
"The public can get involved in a number of ways, for example by photographing sightings and volunteering with ORCA directly, or by reporting sightings of whales and dolphins to the Sea Watch Foundation or to your local Wildlife Trust."
Sally Hamilton, ORCA Director, said: "This is yet further evidence of how mysterious the lives of whales and dolphins are, and gives us a new insight into these fantastic animals. Ferries crossing the Bay of Biscay have hosted ORCA to study these animals for more than two decades, but we are still learning more about them every year."
True’s beaked whales are rarely observed at sea and most existing knowledge comes from a handful of animals found stranded on shore. The animals in this encounter were observed breaching out of the water, thrilling those on board with unparalleled views during the few minutes they were close to the ship.
Further research may help conservationists better understand these elusive animals, but it is possible that these newly discovered features could hint at a new species of beaked whale.
Travis Park, Marie Curie fellow at The Natural History Museum said: "This study is a great example of how Museum collections can aid conservation research. In this case we were able to look at museum specimens for evidence of supernumerary teeth that were seen on one of the individuals sighted in the Bay of Biscay. This aided the team in quickly confirming the identification of these lesser known animals."
Robbins added: "This encounter was not only extremely exciting for those lucky enough to see them from the ferry, but also for scientists as we saw evidence of additional teeth which have not been recorded before. We hope that future opportunities to study True’s beaked whales will help us shed more light on their world."