Squid beaks from whale stomachs

Steve O'Shea

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Hi all. Tintenfisch and I have just returned from a talk we gave on giant squid, giant octopus and other mysterious denizens of the deep, up country a bit. Whilst at the venue someone from the NZ Department of Conservation gave us a chilli bin of squid beaks (at least a thousand beaks) recently extracted (during autopsy) from the stomach of a stranded sperm whale (of length 13m, or ~ 40 feet). Therein were several (2 at least) giant squid beaks, and at least 4 (we haven't really looked at them in detail yet to give precise counts, and they still smell seriously evil and are covered in parasitic worms) of those belonging to Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Those of Mesonychoteuthis just leave those of Architeuthis for dead in the seriously evil stakes - they're considerably larger and CONSIDERABLY THICKER - almost capable of doing the 'cutting through cable' trick that you'll sometimes read about (with respect to Architeuthis).

In the months to come we'll try and describe a few of these beaks online for you (as a small project), as we try and reconstruct what species this whale had been eating, and where it had been eating them; it is really quite interesting stuff!! We also have the stomach contents of three pygmy sperm whales (Kogia) to examine, so the comparison might be of interest to people here.

Mesonychoteuthis is an Antarctic squid species (none is known from New Zealand waters, or at least none is represented in collections from NZ waters), so the sperm whale, stranding in subtropical waters, was likely feeding quite a bit south of New Zealand. I don't know the cause of death of the sperm whale, whether sick or disoriented, but will let you know as soon we find out.
Steve & Tintenfisch
 

Melbe

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You said you would try to find out where the whale was eating the squid, I was just wondering, how can you tell location from what you have? It sounds like it is an interesting process, and I just wanted to know what it involved.
Thanks!!!
Melissa
 

Tintenfisch

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I'll take a crack at this question - don't mind me infringing on your forum, Steve. ;)

We can figure out which species of squid are normally/have previously been found locally (in NZ waters) - whether throughout their lifetimes or transitorily, during migration - by going through the squid collections in museums here. The upper limits of their size ranges can also be conjectured from the preserved specimens' sizes at various states of maturity; however, specimens recovered from whale stomachs often represent larger animals than those found in the collections, and sometimes come from species for which we have very little comparative material because they are quite rare within the collections. By checking the capture details on preserved specimens, we can then extrapolate where (geographic and depth) and when (time of year) the whale was likely to have eaten a particular size/species of squid.

If we keep a continuous record of all specimens captured in NZ waters, we get a pretty good comprehensive idea of which species are found here, again whether only during certain times of year or more or less always. So when stomachs yield beaks from species not previously recorded locally (e.g. Mesonychoteuthis), even if the whale beached here in NZ, we can be fairly sure (because the museum collections are extensive) that the squid in question was consumed somewhere outside local NZ waters. The literature then tells us where the squid is generally found or where specimens have been previously recorded, and we deduce that the whale has probably been feeding in that general area. In this instance, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni is an Antarctic species, so therefore we believe the whale to have been foraging in Antarctic waters - a theory supported by the presence of beaks from other Antarctic squid species in the same stomach. The whale therefore most likely stranded while on a migratory path between the Antarctic and central-eastern NZ.

It is also possible that Mesonychoteuthis does occur locally and has simply never been recorded - in fact, some very surprising squid have turned up here recently - but until we have an actual specimen recorded here independent of a migratory host, we have to exclude it from the known NZ fauna.

Does that help?
 

Steve O'Shea

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I'm impressed :mrgreen:

For those who might not know, you can often identify a prey item (in this case squid) based on the shape of the beak. Differences in beak shapes, characters, and character states can be subtle, but there is a growing body of literature on the subject to help identify them.

Identifying the natural diet of toothed whale species (by examining the squid diet from stomach contents of stranded dead specimens) has an applied application (in conservation). This is particularly true of rehabilitating stranded whales (the likes of the pygmy sperm whale, such as they do at Mote Marine Laboratory, down Sarasota, Florida). By knowing what squid species are naturally consumed by a whale you can then procure the most appropriate diet for them for rehabilitation. Pygmy sperm whales experience all manner of gastric problems trying to digest squid that are commercially available in the US (and thus available to feed them), so if we can provide the appropriate diet of deep-sea ammoniacal squid (the likes of Histioteuthis, Moroteuthis and Architeuthis) to supplement its diet then rehabilitation will likely be more successful. These squid are normally discarded as trawl bycatch as they have no current commercial value (their ammoniacal tissues render them 'unsuitable' or 'unpalatable' as far as we humans are concerned).

I don't know if anyone has successfully rehabilitated a sperm whale yet, but one day this will be achieved (you'd need an awfully big tank or compound).
O
 

Steve O'Shea

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Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm, I could think of nothing better to do on a wet and windy Sunday than be in at work looking at whale stomach contents.

The two Architeuthis were both male at mantle lengths of ~ 1.1m; I've seen many a mature male at this size, with weights ~ 55-75kg. Not exactly huge, but the male only grows to ~ 1.5m ML.

There are at least eight considerably larger beaks attributable to Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni; seems like the whale had been dining well whilst further south. The beaks look old and quite blackened (as if they've been burnt in a camp fire).

The incidence of Architeuthis beaks in the stomach contents is particularly interesting (both upper and lower beaks of the two being present), as both sets are relatively fresh (although no soft tissues remain). Architeuthis almost certainly migrates into New Zealand waters about this time of the year (but where from is a great mystery), so I wouldn't be too surprised if these two beaks belonged to animals consumed in our waters.

Time to make a prediction: you'll probably start hearing reports (maybe headlines if people are not bored with the squid already, and nothing else is happening in the news) of Architeuthis washing ashore or being caught in fishing nets in about 8 days (15 December) through to Feb (at least).

There are many many many other beaks to identify yet - the story will be really quite interesting.
O
 

Nancy

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Hi Steve,
This tale of stomach contents and squid beaks is fascinating! Please continue to tell us what you are finding as the story unfolds.

Nancy
 

tonmo

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Steve O'Shea said:
There are at least eight considerably larger beaks attributable to Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni; seems like the whale had been dining well whilst further south. The beaks look old and quite blackened (as if they've been burnt in a camp fire).
Any thoughts as to why these beaks look the way they do? Seems they're remarkable to you, when compared to the others, yes?

Very cool stuff here you two -- thanks!
 

Steve O'Shea

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Tintenfisch will not be happy with me ... coz I'm having fun ... and she's not here to participate.

Not sure Tony; may be quite old and digested/affected by the whales digestive juices, or they may be naturally blackened like this - I don't have any experience with Mesonychoteuthis beaks when fresh (the adult is a very rare animal in collections, although is supposed to be quite common down there in the Antarctic). All I can tell you is I wouldn't want to be in the water with this thing .... live or dead!

Well, the latest newsworthy item is a beak from our good old friend 'the giant gelatinous octopus' Haliphron atlanticus. Newsworthy because the sperm whale had obviously been feeding in the Antarctic; Haliphron has only recently been recorded from the South Pacific and is considered to be a tropical to subtropical-dwelling species. So where did this beak come from? The Antarctic, Subantarctic or Subtropical New Zealand? Puzzles! The beak is well worn and looks quite old (so, ?not-so-recently eaten).

There's a beak or two (or thousand) amongst that lot that has me scratching my head. Think I'll call it a day there - best go scrub up.
O
 

tonmo

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Steve O'Shea said:
Well, the latest newsworthy item is a beak from our good old friend 'the giant gelatinous octopus' Haliphron atlanticus....
Do you find it interesting that this sperm whale has an octopus (Haliphron atlanticus) in its belly along with all those squid? I've never had much trouble envisioning a whale swooping down into a mass of squid for a hearty meal. But as far as we know, aren't octopus species generally solitary animals?

I guess you just say "a" Haliphron beak, not a bunch. So perhaps he just picked him off, ay? I wonder what other things this sperm whale ate, besides octopus and squid? What does a sperm whale's diet typically consist of? I mean, do they just eat any living thing within their sights, or do they scope out specific prey? I wonder what the likelihood is of one whale dining on such a variety of ceph species, especially the (seemingly?) solitary ones. Or perhaps there are way more of these animals in the ocean than my feeble mind imagines.

Here are some links to the beasties being discussed:

Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni (note the distribution map)

and

Haliphron atlanticus (note the in-action video)
 

corw314

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Hi all! This is fascinating! Wonder how he caught the octopus? Another question, are these beaks digestible??

:) Carol
 

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