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Tetrapod Zoology


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Identify the Baja California mystery whale carcass!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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We all love identifying – or, trying to identify – weird carcasses. Back in December 2011, marine biologist and world chiton expert Douglas Eernisse of the University of California (Santa Cruz) sent me the series of photos you see here and below. They show a smallish cetacean (total length about 3 m), found beached and in partly decomposed condition at Loreto, Baja California. A large damaged region on the animal’s tailstock seemed to demonstrate death by collision with a boat.

The people who discovered the carcass identified it as a Pygmy sperm whale Kogia breviceps and noted that it possessed the asymmetrical blowhole typical for sperm whales. Hmm.. oh really?

Douglas and I have been discussing the carcass in an effort to identify it, but in the interests of sharing the fun, I have Doug’s permission to post the images here. Check out the many anatomical details you can see in the photos and see if you can pin down the carcass’s precise identity. To the winner – the spoils!

Thanks again to Douglas Eernisse for the photos. For previous Tet Zoo articles on weird marine mammal carcasses, see…

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. RndrpsOnRoses 2:19 pm 02/18/2012

    False killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens)?

    Link to this
  2. 2. bmljenny 2:23 pm 02/18/2012

    Pilot whale (Globicephala)? Dunno if short or long finned.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Cameron McCormick 2:49 pm 02/18/2012

    noted that it possessed the asymmetrical blowhole typical for sperm whales. Hmm.. oh really?

    Yeah… Kogia has a fairly normal odontocete blowhole which is skewed slightly to the left whereas Physeter has that “s”-shaped madness on the far left end of its head. I can’t clearly see any blowhole on this carcass.

    It appears that this carcass lacks the prow-like head shape (and subsequent underbite) of Kogia and the tooth shape is totally different. Where the heck are all the teeth anyways?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Cameron McCormick 2:56 pm 02/18/2012

    Oh wait, Grampus griseus reaches over 3 m, has a very large dorsal fin placed about halfway down the body, and most importantly, only has a few pairs of teeth placed toward the anterior end of the mandible. I’m going with Risso’s.

    Link to this
  5. 5. thegmac 3:10 pm 02/18/2012

    It only has 2 pairs of teeth in the lower jaw. That would suggest a member of the Ziphiidae, male. Probably a young male, since it seems to be small.
    But the lack of prominent beak could mean I’m wrong

    Link to this
  6. 6. suferable 4:57 pm 02/18/2012

    I’m going to go with Grampus griseus, it doesn’t seem to have the telltale notch in the forehead, but the teeth and the square shaped head say Grampus to me.

    Link to this
  7. 7. llewelly 6:52 pm 02/18/2012

    It’s a demonoid.

    Good thing it died before it got to Sandy Eggo. Might’ve et the whole town.

    Link to this
  8. 8. vdinets 6:59 pm 02/18/2012

    Grampus would be the most likely species there; the teeth and the head shape fit.

    Link to this
  9. 9. leecris 7:09 pm 02/18/2012

    Can’t be Kogia – it doesn’t have nearly enough teeth in the lower jaw. I agree with Grampus griseus. It’s not easy to see the groove in the center of the forehead but there’s definitely an indentation there in the topmost photo; hard to tell how much the shape changed with partial decomposition and dessication.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Finback 10:40 pm 02/18/2012

    Marine gorgonopsian.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Hai~Ren 1:35 am 02/19/2012

    It’s actually a highly decomposed raccoon/sloth/opossum/cat. Or an aquatic ropen.

    In all seriousness, Risso’s dolphin sounds like the most plausible candidate to me.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Dartian 8:34 am 02/19/2012

    Cameron:
    only has a few pairs of teeth placed toward the anterior end of the mandible

    Yeah, the teeth are diagnostic; that can really only be a Risso’s dolphin Grampus griseus.

    Link to this
  13. 13. michaels07 12:47 pm 02/19/2012

    Fin Whale, For a brief moment i was sure it was Gov Christie of New Jersey, he`s always beaching himself, a whale of a guy.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Mark Evans 4:45 am 02/20/2012

    I’d go with Risso’s dolphin due to the small number of robust conical teeth at the front of the lower jaw. The forehead looks slightly concave, which could be the vestiges of the diagnostic crease. It looks like some scavenger has deliberately targetted the “fat window” in the lower jaw.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Phoca 3:24 pm 02/22/2012

    A vote for Risso’s dolphin, but I’m a pinniped what do I know.

    Link to this

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