I find it so fascinating how little we know about our own planet. From a scientist’s perspective, it’s awe-inspiring. It’s the realization that after centuries of scientific discovery, there’s still so, so much we have yet to discover. Consider the video below (from the Washington Post):
A video of three whales swimming around…big deal, right? Well, yeah!! One of the largest creatures on the planet, and yet it’s a species that has only been SEEN by a handful of human beings. Never before has video such as this been taken. The True’s Beaked Whale is a mystery, an animal that’s thought to spend over 90% of it’s life submerged beneath the ocean’s surface. Natacha Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has studied beaked whales for many years, spending months at sea but yet rarely ever seeing ANY beaked whale species, much less a True’s Beaked whale.
However in 2013, a friend sent de Soto a video from the Azores that had been taken by science students on an excursion. The 46-second video above shows 3 adult or sub-adult beaked whales, casually swimming near the surface before slowly swimming out of the frame. De Soto was stunned to see the video of a creature she’d only hoped to see some day. Using the video evidence, information from dead stranded whales that have been found, and other rare sightings, de Soto published a paper in the journal PeerJ that provides new insights on True’s Beaked Whales. A True’s beaked whale has never before been tagged, but other beaked whale species have been documented diving to over 9,800 feet below the ocean’s surface, the deepest and longest dives of any mammal on the planet. At this stage, so little is known about True’s Beaked Whales that overall population size and trends are unknown. The article above however points out the dangers to similar beaked whales. A Culver’s Beaked Whale, a close relative, was recently found dead with over 30 plastic bags in it’s digestive tract, and military sonar has also been implicated in the strandings of similar whales. The video was invaluable for the research, as beaked whales in general are so rare, that even general appearance and distinguishing between species is difficult. The research also hints at the possibility of True’s Beaked Whales actually being two different species, one in the northern Atlantic and one in the southern Atlantic. As deSoto states:
“We don’t know how large the populations of True’s beaked whale or any other species are,” said Aguilar de Soto. “The populations could decline and we would never know.”
An elephant-sized creature, one that’s shared the same planet as us for centuries, yet one that could potentially disappear without human beings ever knowing much about them. At a time when political winds are telling one of our Federal science agencies, NASA, to stop observing the earth and instead focus on the stars, stories like this remind us how very little we know about our own planet.