On fossil beaked whales, phosphorites and ocean floors

In 2007, the vessel Anita was fishing with bottom gillnets in about 400m-deep waters northwest of the island of Mykines in the Faroe Islands (about 62˚05’N-09˚28’W). One day, fisherman Bjarni Jacobsen from the village of Sumba in the Faroe Islands, observed a strange object in the nets. At first sight he thought it was a peculiar stone (stones often get entangled in the nets). However, he soon realised that it had to be something different and put the object aside. He later believed it to be a bone or a head of a large animal or reptile and – acknowledging that fossils of large mammals or reptiles are unknown in the Faroe Islands – handed it over to a local museum. After time and much travel, the enigmatic object was identified as a rostrum – the anterior part of the skull – of the 10 to 8myr-old extinct beaked whale, Choneziphius planirostris (Post & Jensen, 2013).

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Fig. 1. The Anita rostrum; dorsal and lateral view.

Beaked whales

The shy, deep diving and squid-eating beaked whales (Ziphiidae) are, after the dolphins (Delphinidae), the most species-rich family of extant cetaceans (with 22 living species). Their obscure behaviour is the reason that some of the species were – until a few years ago – never seen and just known from skulls found on distant beaches. They range from medium sized (3m – the pygmy beaked whale, Mesoplodon peruvianus) to up to very large animals (12m – Baird’s beaked whale, Berardius bairdii). All of them are specialised divers (up to depths of 2,000m and with dives lasting up to one and a half hours.) and none of them has ever survived in captivity. And, yet still many details of their morphology, physiognomy and metabolism are unknown and/or not (yet) understood.

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