The Northern Bottlenose Whale – The Forgotten Deep Sea Giant with a Head like a Battering Ram

Beaked whales are among the least known cetaceans and even today several species are still only known from a few sightings and stranded specimens. Most people are likely even fully unaware of their very existence, despite the giant size and remarkable appearance of some species. One reason is likely because you will hardly ever see them in a nature documentary because most species are very shy and notoriously hard to find, spend little time on the surface, live in small groups or solitary. This is also the main reason why beaked whales were hardly affected by whaling, with two big exceptions. One is the colossal Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii) which is still hunted for „scientific“ reasons by Japanese whalers. The other exception is the Northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus), which was hunted at industrial scale in the northern Atlantic. Even today they are occasionally caught off the Faroe islands. In contrast to most other beaked whales it spends comparably much time on the surface and is not very shy towards boats, and it occurs in areas which are still comparably close to coasts. It lives in larger groups and the members of the pod usually stay close to injured individuals. This made it easy for whalers to kill many whales after the first one was harpooned, sometimes up to the last member of the pod. As long as the harpooned one was still alive, the others stayed with it.

Northern bottlenose in the Gully off Newfoundland, photo from a research expedition taken by the Whitehead Lab. Note the high domed front, which can be even much more pronounced in older males. The head is also still rather dark in colour, in older males it can be distinctively light in colour. Photo from Wikipedia by Cephas.

The other reason why they were hunted was their commercial value. Northern bottlenose whales are among the largest beaked whales and yield a big amount of blubber which was boiled to produce whale oil. And like sperm whales, their melons contain spermaceti, an oil of very high quality and big value. In contrast to the liquid spermaceti of sperm whales the Hyperoodon spermaceti is however of a hard consistency.Hunting bottlenose whales was also much lesser dangerous than the hunt for sperm whales and whalers also needed not as much boats and equipment and had smaller crews. The commercial hunt for bottlenose whales started off Norway, but in later years they were also targeted off Scotland and the northern coast of the American east coast. Since the late 19th century, from 1882 to 1920, about 50.000 Northern bottlenose whales were killed off northwestern Europe alone and commercial hunting at larger scale persisted until the 70ies.

Skeleton of a Northern bottlenose whale in the Senckenberg Museum Frankfurt, photo by Markus Bühler

Because the northern bottlenose whale is comparably easy to encounter, dwells in pretty unexotic waters off northern Europe and the U.S. we know much more about it than about other beaked whales. This makes it still somewhat surprising that it is so little known to the general public. Sometimes they make it even into the news, like a specimen which in died in 2006 in the river Thames at London, but normally they are more or less dismissed, even among many people who really have a strong interest in nature.

Breaching northern bottlenose whale. Photo from Wikipedia, by Sanna Isojunno

I have to admit that I usually mainly dismissed them as well, until I realized what incredible and fascinating creatures they are. First of all they are big, the largest beaked whales of the northern Atlantic and overlap in their size ranges with orcas. Exceptionally arge bulls can grow to 9,2 m or possibly even 9,8 length and close to 10 tons in weight, what’s about two times as heavy as an elephant or similar to the biggest orcas. The average sizes are of course lower, but it is not that easy to find good size data for the averages of this species. But even then we have a predatory cetacean in the waters of the northern Atlantic which grows regularly as heavy as a big African elephant bull. The possibly most prominent trait of the northern bottlenose whale is its melon. It is rounded and markedly set off the beak. It is more pronounced in males than in females and it continues to increase in size for a very long time. In old bulls it can reach grotesque dimensions and forms a protruding steep ram-like shape, which overtowers the rest of the head, similar to the over-dimensional spermaceti organ of old sperm whale bulls.

Very large old male Northern bottlenose whale. Illustration by Markus Bühler

The ontogenetic changes are very strongly pronounced and old bulls differ significantly from younger – also already fully sexually mature bulls. They are much bulkier, have huge domed spermaceti organs with corresponding enlarged cranial structures below, often distinct whitish facial areas and grow also a pair of mandibular teeth which are also used for intraspecific fights. I like to call such old males with extreme morphological features which make them highly distinct from normal males „veteran bulls“. We find similar cases in certain other species as well, for example sperm whales, elephants, bears, wild boars, giraffes or even apes. This really is a topic of itself, and I hope to write more about it anytime in the future. In many beaked whales the tusks are mainly used for fights, but in Hyperoodon the huge enlarged heads are used like battering rams.

It is really unusual for mammals that teeth erupt only in older males long after reaching sexual maturity. In Hyperoodon they erupt at an age of about 15-17 years. In many other beaked whales and some other odontocetes we see a lot of scars from intraspecific confrontations, sometimes at massive degrees. In comparison the amount of scaring in bottlenose whales appears very moderate.

Skull of a Northern Bottlenose whale with visible pair of mandibular Teeth. Senckenbeg Museum Frankfurt, photo by Markus Bühler

Here is a detail photo of the teeth from the skeleton above:

Teeth of a male Northern Bottlenose Whale, Senckenberg Museum Frankfurt, photo by Markus Bühler

Like in most other beaked whales (Sheperd’s beaked whale might be an exception) teeth play no important role for hunting and prey is caught by suction feeding. Most of their prey consits of small to medium-sized squids and fishes. The squid Gonatus fabticii is a particularly common prey species in the North Atlantic, which reaches a mantle length of about 30 cm. Most surprisingly however is the occasional consumption of echinoderms like starfish and sea cucumbers.

Gonatus fabricii. Photo from Wikipedia, Image courtesy of The Hidden Ocean, Arctic 2005 Exploration, NOAA-OE.

This is really unusual given the fact that few marine animals feed at all on those invertebrates. But a giant cetacean which eats benthic echinoderms is truly amazing. Bottlenose whales are among the deepest diving cetaceans and regularly swim down to depths of more than 1000 m, with a record depth of even 2339 m. They can stay underwater for at least one and a half hours what’s among the longest diving times among mammals.

I think it is really important to see those whales as some kind of travelers between two worlds. We can only see and observe them when they are near the surface, but they spend much of their lives in abysmal depths, within a completely different environment. They interact with an ecosystem which is still very alien and little known to us. And they are not just mere spectators of that world like humans in a submarine but active elements of this deep sea ecosystems. After all, they are likely even very important parts of this environmental network, the second largest predators in the depths of the Atlantic ocean. A small group of bottlenose whales already consumes a similar amount of fish and cephalopods as a sperm whale bull, and this on a daily basis.

That’s why I tried to give you an impression about this world in the depths of the northern Atlantic ocean. The landscape is sometimes truly spectacular with deep canyons and elevations. The invertebrate fauna in this lightless areas is also surprisingly colorful and can even compete with the shallow reefs of the subtropical seas. One of my references was the Gully Canyon which is located east of Nova Scotia, close to the edge of the continental shelf of North America. This enormous deep see canyon has a length of over 65 km and is up to 16 km wide, with a depth up to 1000 meters. If you look for pictures you will find some spectacular photos which show the unexpected colorfulness of this part of the ocean which has never seen a glimpse of sunlight. I wanted to show you how this hidden world deep below the surface of the Atlantic ocean looks like, and how its second largest predator patrols the depths in search of squids, fish and echinoderms.

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Gully-Canyon-final-1024x577.jpg
Northern Bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampulatus) hunting for squids in the Gully Canyon. Illustration by Markus Bühler

The inspiration to illustrate a deep-diving cetacean within an underwater canyon landscape goes back to my good friend Cameron McCormick.


Ellis, R. (1996). Deep Atlantic. Knopf.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (2003). Walker’s marine mammals of the world. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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Visiting Historyland Part I: The Southern Mammoth

Earlier this year, I made a trip to the Netherlands. One of my points of interest was Historyland in Hellevoetsluis, which is located western of Rotterdam. Historyland is an educational theme park which mainly focuses on different historic subjects, from naval history, to medieval and military history and – besides several other topis – paleontology. To cut a long story short, I have to say I was absolutely exited! The paleontological exhibition of Historyland is really world-class and can easily compete with all natural history museums I have ever visited! The main focus is on pleistocene mammals, but there are also various impressive fossils from other classes and ages. There are so many amazing fossils and reconstructions in that exhibition that I decided to make a series in which I want to feature several of the highlights. I visited the park with my good friends Dick Mol and his wife Friedje and had also the pleasure to get a private guided tour by the founder of Historyland, Arie van den Ban.

Dick is surely one of the biggest experts about prehistoric proboscideans and various other pleistocene mammals, in particular those known from the Doggerland. The ongoing design and development of the exhibition was made in charge of his expertise. As a result of this, the exhibition is highly informative and highly up-to-date (something that´s admittedly comparably often not the case in many museums where info plates sometimes haven´t changed for decades). It´s the type of museum which I love, with many, many specimens in the exhibition and a lot of information about them, something that sadly becomes in the modern world more and more rare. A lot of museums today focus on very few and isolated objects in their exhibition, often not even with info plates anymore. Luckily not in Historyland, the number of specimens is just staggering for the size of the exhibition. Another big asset is that the conditions to take photos are rather good for most of them. I emphasize this, because it can be utterly frustrating to see interesting specimens in a museum which are too far away to take good photos, which are partially hidden or which are exposed with too less or coloured light.

One of the absolute highlights is the life-sized reconstruction of a Southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis). I don´t exaggerate when I say it was one of the most awesome reconstructions of a prehistoric animal I have ever seen. There are a lot of life reconstructions of wooly mammoths, and I´ve seen some other very good ones. But this southern mammoth is still different for several reasons. First of all, it´s absolutely huge. This reconstruction of a big bull towers with a shoulder height of 4,20 m above the visitors and dwarfs even a wooly mammoth, which averaged at about 2,70 m at the shoulder. A giant like this would have weighed about 8.000-10.000 kg.

Southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis), Historyland. Photo by Markus Bühler

Besides its impressive size, what makes it also different from other mammoths? Well, obviously the lack of a long shaggy fur. Mammuthus meridionalis, which lived around 2,5 million years ago, was no inhabitant of an ice-age tundra, but lived in comparably warm conditions in a partially tree-covered savannah-like landscape. Unlike wooly mammoths, which fed mainly on grass and herbs, the southern mammoth´s teeth show that it fed mainly on leaves and branches, and grass was very likely just a lesser important part of its diet. This animals must have had a tremendous impacts on their environment, since they were likely the most potent natural landscape designers. There are also other large herbivores which will feed on young trees, which break of branches or which even peel of the bark of larger trees. But no other animal can break off higher branches or log even bigger trees (beavers of course too, but they stay close to bodys of water, what limits their range of impact).

Mammuthus meridionalis in its natural savannah habitat. Wall mural in Historyland. Photo by Markus Bühler

Fossils of this giants have been found in the North Sea, and this model in Historyland is the first life-sized reconstruction of its kind in the world. Reconstructions of wooly mammoths are usually nearly fully covered with fur, either synthetic fur or long fur from certain sheep breeds or muskoxen. This means that only comparably few parts of the whole model need a more detailed surface, for example around the facial parts and the trunk. But in this model literally every single square centimeter (except for three of the four soles) was bare and visible. So it was necessary to sculpt the surface of nearly the complete surface of that giant model. The artist, Jim van Dijk of Jim of Dijk Creations/Replica Wildlifeii did really a fantastic job here. There are so many fine details, skin wrinkles, additionally attached hairs, bristles, cornifications and much more that it appears nearly like a real taxidermy specimen.

The details of the skin shows quite well how incredibly much research and work went into this.

Detail of the feet

Another detail view:

Detail of the mouth and the underside of the trunk

The backside:

Backside and tail

The mainly bare skin and the teeth adapted for browsing on shrubs and trees was however not the only thing that was different from the wooly mammoth. This was not just an especially large and furless mammoth, this was a unique animal which looked rather different from what we´re used to see in other proboscideans. The domed based of the trunk, which mus have been particularly thick, appears especially unfamiliar compared with extant elephants and wooly mammoths.

The lateral view shows quite well how different M. meridionalis was from other proboscideans.

Before the work on the final model could start, Jim van Dijk made in january 2023 a maquette made from modelling clay at a scale of 1:10. It took one week under the supervision of Dick Mol until it was finished. In his atelier in Eersel near Eindhoven Jim van Dijk worked nearly for three months to finish the model, including four days to transport and assemble it at Historyland.

The construction of the model is also interesting, since it is not (as in many comparable cases) a fibreglass cast made with a mold from an original sculpted with modelling clay, but it was directly sculpted over a metal armature. If you are interested in the making-of this model I highly recommend you to watch this video by Jim van Dijk Creations:

Now this was part I about my visit of Historyland, but I plan to write some follow-ups about some of the other especially interesting specimens and life-reconstructions there.

At this point I also want to thank Dick, Friedje and Arie van den Ban for this fantastic day there. If I come again in this area, I really have to visit Historyland again, since I did not even manage to take a look at everything.

Homepage of Historyland

Veröffentlicht unter Blogposts in English, Megafauna, Paläontologie, Säugetiere | Verschlagwortet mit , , | Ein Kommentar

Snap-shots of a Live Foodchain – The Seagull that caught a Garfish with a Sprat in its Mouth

We all know depictions of food chains and food webs from books or museums, which show how small herbivores or planctivores are eaten by larger predators which are again eaten by even larger predators. But it´s incredibly rare to see such a thing happen literally at a time in reality.

Wildlife photographer Bill Coulson from Brixham, Devon, managed to snap a shot of such a highly unusual scene. On the coast of Lyme Bay, in the South of England, he took photos of seabirds from a seawatch point. Among those birds was a European herring gull (Larus argentatus) which had a freshly caught garfish (Belone belone) in its beak. This would have been already a rather interesting and also not really common thing to see, but the close ups of the photos revealed something even much more spectacular. The garfish in the gull´s beak had again something in its beak-like jaws, a sprat (likely Sprattus sprattus) which it had just caught and half-eaten, moments before it became prey itself.

Herring gull with a garfish which has caught a sprat. Photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

Here is another detail photo. You can see quite well how the garfish swallowed the sprat head first:

Herring gull with a garfish which has caught a sprat. Photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

It is really extremely rare that something like this is photographed or filmed. I am only aware of a few other comparable cases, which show such „life action foodchains“, what makes Bill´s photos even more conspicuous. Some years ago, my friend Dean Lomax asked me if I could help to search for photos like this, when he was working on his wonderful book Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils. The book deals with 50 unique cases of fossils, which show us very special insights into the lives of certain prehistoric animals. The book was illustrated by Bob Nicholls, who created wonderful depictions of those animals when they were still alive (or in some cases, just dead). In some chapters, photos of comparable modern day animals are included, for example a case of a crocodile which had a substantial amount of its upper jaw broken off, in the chapter about the highly unlucky Pelagosaurus from Dotternhausen, which had its lower jaw broken.

Bill´s photos of the gull with the garfish and sprat would have been absolutely perfect for the chapter about cases of foodchains in the fossil record. This includes a fossil from Messel Pit of a small boid of the species Eoconstrictor fischeri which had eaten a basilisk lizard of the species Geiseltaliellus maarius which again had a beetle in its stomach, which was still so well preserved, that some of its colours remained. Nearly the the only comparable case I could find was an osprey which had caught a small shark that had still a smaller fish in its mouth. Sadly we couldn´t find another fitting modern day analoge which could be used for the book. I really have to write a review about this book, which I highly recommend you to read.

As you can see, the garfish was a quite sought-after prey:

Herring gull with a garfish which has caught a sprat. Photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

Perhaps because the dessert was already included as well?

Herring gull with a garfish which has caught a sprat. Photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

It is really fantastic that Bill could also document the ongoing struggle for the gar.

Herring gull with a garfish which has caught a sprat. Photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

The photos were taken from a high-lying seawatch point at Berry Head:

Seawatch point at Berry Head, photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

Another photo of the same seawatch point, photographed from the sea.

The cliffs of Berry Head, photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

Here you can a nearby old limestone quarry, which was closed in the 1960s. The landscape is really wonderful, I would love to visit it anytime.

Berry Head limestone quarry, photo by Bill Coulson, used with permission.

Many thanks to Bill for sending me the photos of this incredible occurence! Make sure to take a look at his Twitter profile, he has posted many other fantastic nature photos.

Veröffentlicht unter allgemeine Zoologie, Blogposts in English, Fische, Vögel | Verschlagwortet mit | Schreib einen Kommentar

Birds, Bugs and Baby Turtles – Eocene Fossil Treasures from Mors

During my recent visit of Jutland in the North-West of Denmark, I had the chance to see some amazing Eocene fossils on Mors, a small island located within the Limfjord.

A wonderful illustration near the ferry dock of Feggesund Havn, showing some of the species found on Mors, including tarpoons and turtles

Mors is famous for some exceptionally well preserved fossils from marine diatomea deposits of the Eocene. It includes mainly marine species, but also a surprising number of non-marine animals as well, like various insects and tropical birds. You can see many of those wonderful fossils in the Fossil- og Molermuseet, which is located in an old farmhouse, in the North of Mors.

Fossil- og Molermuseet

It is absolutely impossible to show more than just a tiny fraction of the countless fossils in the museum, so I will mainly focus on some highlights. First of all the „star“ of the museum, an exceptionally preserved turtle of the species Tasbacka danica which is called „Luffe“. What is particularly special about this specimen is that even some of the soft tissue was preserved as dark shadows around and above the bones. In fact, Luffe is best preserved fossil of a juvenile turtle of the world.


There are also some other fossils of turtles, but there´s something that I find even much more interesting. This was one of the most amazing fossils in the whole collection for me. Some vertebrae of Palaeophis, a genus of large to giant marine snakes. Admittedly, those vertebrae doesn´t really look particularly impressie, and they did not belong to a giant specimen, but this snake would still have easily dwarfed every extant marine snake.

Palaeophis vertebrae

Another particularly awesome specimen was a nearly complete male tarpoon of about 1,2 m:

Tarpoon fossil

Sadly thiss photos doesn´t really show the size of this fossil or the wonderfully preserved details. You can see more photos and read more about this specimen here.

Here you can see one of several exceptionally well preserved mackerels. Again you can see not just the mere bones but shadows of the soft tissue:

Fossil mackerel

Fossils like this one are also a good reminder how little sense the common use of the term „living fossil“ makes. Many modern teleost fishes were already present in the Eocene and have hardly changed over time. This mackerel is already completely anatomically modern and hardly distinguishable from its modern relatives. After all, it differs lesser from its modern relatives than Allonautilus from its ancestral forms of that time. But yet we would hardly consider a mackerel as a living fossil, nor one of the many other modern teleost fish species which hardly differ from their Eocene ancestors.

Fossil smelt

A fossil sea bass, again with soft tissue shadow:

Sea bass fossil

Here is also another quite unusual specimen, a fossilized branch with a shark tooth embedded:

Detail of the tooth:

There are also a lot of birds from Mors, including some with preserved plumage, like this Pellornis mickelseni, a relative of modern trogos:

Pellornis mikkelseni

What is especially amazing is how some of the fossilized feathers have even preserved their patterns:

Fossil feather with pattern

We can see similarly amazing details in some of the arthropods, like this gnat:

Fossil gnat

Fossils of such an extraordinairy quality are extremely rare. Here is another wonderful specimen, a large locust with patterned wings:

Locust fossil with wing pattern

I also visited the are where many of the fossils were found, a stone pit which is just next to the museum:

Stone pit on Mors

I had sadly not much time to search for fossils, because there was strong pelting rain just about 15-20 minutes after my arrival. But it was yet a quite successful fossil hunt. I found the remains of a small fish, a brittle star (which is quite rare) and something that appears to be an insect.

My little fish from the stone pit. I sadly lost the other piece after splitting and could not relocate it anymore

If you should ever visit Norther Jutland, I can only highly recommend you to visit the fossil museum of Mors. With the ticket you can also visit some other museums nearby, from which the historical museum in the old monastery of Nykøbing Mors is especially interesting.

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Pygmy and dwarf sperm whales – hook-toothed hunters of the abyss

The pygmy sperm whales and dwarf sperm whales are remarkable for a lot of reasons, for example for their extraordinary ability to release a dark substance from a gut pouch and hide within a cloud of their intestinal fluids. Not that long ago I have already covered and illustrated this bizarre behavior. But there is so much more to say about kogiids. I think it´s fair to say that they are among the weirdest extant whales. Today there are only two remaining species, the pygmy sperm whale Kogia breviceps and the dwarf sperm whale Kogia simus.

Pygmy spem whale (Kogia breviceps) hunting a deep sea squid of the genus Taonius. Illustration by Markus Bühler

Their next living relative is the much more famous sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus. Physeter and Kogia share a number of anatomical and behavioral characters, like the prominent spermaceti organs which even extends their upper jaws. But there is a big difference. In Physeter the blowhole is located on the left side of the „nose“, close to the most anterior part of the giant spermaceti organ. In kogiids however the blowhole is still at the same position as in all other odontocetes, in the area above the eyes. It has only a very subtle and hardly recognizable lateral asymmetrical position and forms also no pronounced hump as the blowhole of Physeter. They also lack the weird array of multiple „humps“ which we find instead of a real dorsal fin in Physeter. The same applies to the lateral skin wrinkles of Physeter.

All in all the postcranial external anatomy of kogiids is as usual as possible. But at least their heads are absolutely weird. Their skulls are highly shortened and asymmetrical, with a big cranial basin for the anteriorly protruding spermaceti organ.

Their mouths are also highly unusual. The jaws are rather short and the opening of the mouth very small, nearly like an oval hole in the downside of the head. The mandibular teeth however are very long, thin and curved to the midline of the lower jaw. As a result of this weird tooth arrangement it seems that adult pygmy and dwarf sperm whales can’t fully close their mouths anymore, so they stand constantly partially open. In contrast to Physeter we find still erupted and functional upper teeth, but they are much lesser numerous and smaller in size than the mandibular teeth.

Pygmy sperm whale jaw (erroneously labeled as dolphin jaw) from the Oceania exhibition of the Museum fü Völkerkunde (Ethnological Museum) Berlin. Photo by Markus Bühler

The combination of short jaws and a small opening of the mouth with very long thin teeth is quite unusual. In general we see the opposite condition, like comparably short jaws with small, blunt or missing teeth or elongated and narrow jaws with thin and long teeth. In contrast to Physeter we see also usually no battle scars from intraspecific fights so we can be quite sure that the bizarre comb-like teeth evolved for hunting and not fighting.

Pygmy sperm whale jaw (erroneously labeled as dolphin jaw) from the Oceania exhibition of the Museum für Völkerkund (Ethnological Museum) Berlin. In this dorsal view you can ee the strong inwards curvature of the long thorn-like teeth. Photo by Markus Bühler

Pygmy and dwarf sperm whales feed mainly on small prey species which they usually hunt in depth of about 250-1.500 m. K. breviceps feeds mainly on small cephalopods whereas K. simus includes a bigger part of fish in its diet. Furthermore they also consume crustaceans like free swimming deep sea shrimps. I wanted to illustrate a hunting dwarf sperm whale in the deep sea, so I shamelessly reused my „pooping“ Kogia breviceps which I made for the blog article about the totally weird anti-predator behavior of kogiids. I had to paint much of the tail-part which was mainly blurred in the original illustration and without any detailing.

As prey species I chose a deep sea squid of the genus Taonius, which is known from the stomach contents of Kogia breviceps. This was a good chance to illustrate this rarely depicted cephalopod. This translucent squids show a very strong ontogenetic change with juveniles that have bizarre stalked eyes. The adults have highly reduced arms and still extremely bulging eyes. I also added a small swarm of hatchet fish for a bit more faunal diversity and to include a touch of bioluminescence.

But I also wanted another illustration which gives a better look on the incredible teeth of a pygmy sperm whale. Admittedly, I wanted to make it look a bit more intimidating for a more impressive effect, so I also added a reflection of the eye. In fact that´s how it can look like if marine mammals are illuminated by spotlights and filmed or photographed in dark water, so it´s not really that much imagination behind this. I used a screenshot from some deep sea footage of a sperm whale as main reference for the lights here.

Pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) snachting the giant mysid Neognathophausia ingens. Illustration by Markus Bühler

I didn´t want just another cephalopod as prey item in this case, so I decided to illustrate a somewhat lesser common species from the known diet of Kogia breviceps. It´s Gnathophausia ingens, a species of lophogastrid crustacean. This bright-red mysids grow to pretty large sizes (up to about 35 cm) and inhabit depths of around 900-1,400 m. Crustaceans are not very common in the diets of cetaceans, but they can contribute a considerable (at least up to 15%) part to the diet of pygmy and dwarf sperm whales.

Not that long ago, there was also a case in which the considerably rotten corpse of a dwarf or pygmy sperm whale was found on the beach of a Philippine island Surigaro del Norte and lead to a lot of (nearly universally erronous) speculation about its identity. The paticularly weird cranial anatomy was surely one of the main reasons why so many people did not realize that this were in fact the remains of a cetacean, and not of a seal or seacow. I covered the case here.


Beatson, E. (2007). The diet of pygmy sperm whales, Kogia breviceps, stranded in New Zealand: implications for conservation. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 17(2–3), 295–303.

Staudinger, M. D., McAlarney, R. J., McLellan, W. A. & Ann Pabst, D. (2013). Foraging ecology and niche overlap in pygmy (Kogia breviceps) and dwarf (Kogia sima) sperm whales from waters of the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. Marine Mammal Science, 30(2), 626–655.

Veröffentlicht unter Illustration, Wale | Schreib einen Kommentar

A possible new beaked whale species observed off Mexico

Yesterday it was announnced that some possibly hitherto unknown beaked whales were observed and photographed in the waters north of the San Benito Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Illustration of the possible new beaked whale from the Pacific Oceans near the San Benito Archipelago

Scientists of the Sea Sheperd vessel Martin Sheen were able to observe the whales both on the surface and underwater near the archipelago of the San Benito Islands. Those three remote islands are located off Baja California, Mexico.

I tried to illustrate the species as good as possible based on the few published photos. Sadly the head was not very well visible. The presence of many large scars indicate however that the males of this species possess battle teeth. As they were howeve fully invisible this the photos and because they are among the most important diagnostic characters of beaked whales, I did not depict them here, to avoid too much speculation about their shape and position.

The beaked whales also differed acoustically from the known echolocation sounds of other beaked whales and it is expected to represent a new and yet undescribed species. Beaked whales are still among the least known cetaceans, and the biology of many species is still mainly unknown. Even new species has been described in recent years, and there is valid reason to assume that other species awaits discovery.

Of course it is problematic to identify a new animal species from observations alone, without any physical remains to work with. But this is a start for more research, and perhaps future expeditions will enable us to get more photos and echolocation data, observation of behavior and hopeyfully – DNA samples which would settle wether or not this is a fully new species or perhaps just a known species or possibly yet unknown subspecies.

Original story and photos of the mysterious whales

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Curiosity of the Day: A Native American bag made from a pelican head

Today´s Curiosity of the Day is a very remarkable bag made from a pelican head. It is on display in the exhibition about First Nations in the Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa. Sadly the only available information was that it dates to around 1900 and was made by members of the T´suu T´ina (also known as Sarcee).

T´suu T’ina pelican head bag, Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa. Photo by Markus Bühler

The head belongs to an American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). The skin of the head which is of yellow color was also coloured with ochre after it was tanned.

I have no idea what function this truely unusual container had, if it was just a singular curiosity or a more common thing to make bags from pelican heads for some special purpose. But in anyway it´s a fascinating object which I could not resist to share.

Veröffentlicht unter Curiosity of the Day, Ethnology, Vögel | Schreib einen Kommentar

The Nightmare Look of Naked Owls – how Feathers Conceal a Bird´s True Shape

Today I want to show you one of the coolest bird specimens I have ever seen in a museum, a bodycast of a barn owl (Tyto alba) with removed feathers. This gives us a great opportunity to see the enormous amount of volume which is made up by the feathers of a bird. It shows also very well how much the external appearance of an owl differs from the actual body below.

Bodycast of a barn owl with removed feathers, Museum Mensch und Natur, Freiburg. Photo by Marku Bühler

This is of course a particularly extreme example as owls have especially voluminous feathers on their heads and necks, what makes the difference even more remarkable.We are often used to think that feathers and fur are only thin coats that closely follow the underlying body shapes.

Bodycast of a barn owl with removed feathers, Museum Mensch und Natur, Freiburg. Photo by Marku Bühler

But in many cases we see a massive difference between the apparent body proportions with feathers or fur and the real body proportions below.The barn owl here is an excellent example for this.

Bodycast of a barn owl with removed feathers, Museum Mensch und Natur, Freiburg. Photo by Marku Bühler

It was on exhibit in a special exhibition of the Museum Mensch und Natur (museum of man and nature) in Freiburg which I visited a few years ago. I don’t think the featherless body was a real plastinated owl but quite likely a cast. We can see here all the features which are usually hidden below the thick plumage, including the weird skin folds around the ears of the owl.

Bodycast of a barn owl with removed feathers, Museum Mensch und Natur, Freiburg. Photo by Marku Bühler

Besides the featherless body was also a full taxidermy specimen for a better visualization of the differences.

Barn owl taxidermy specimen, Museum Mensch und Natur, Freiburg. Photo by Marku Bühler

A particularly good idea was also the jar filled with the removed feathers to show just how much volume they have.

Bodycast of a barn owl with removed feathers, Museum Mensch und Natur, Freiburg. Photo by Marku Bühler

Of course it’s somewhat more than the volume of the feathers as long as they are still attached to the skin. Something we also often tend to forget is the weight of feathers. They are symbols of weightlessness, and singular feathers have very little weight indeed. But altogether they summarize to a considerable weight which can make up a lot of a bird’s total weight. Reconstructions of extinct birds and of course certain lineages of feathered theropods as well (and yes, of course I am are aware that birds are technically theropod dinosaurs, yet I find it still useful to discriminate between anatomically modern birds and feathered mesozoic theropods for several reasons). We have to keep the volume in mind when we reconstruct the outlines of such animals from their bare bones, especially on body areas like the necks. The differences in the appearances can be really dramatic as even a moderate amount of feather volume can change the body shape a lot. The weight of plumage is also a considerable factor when it comes to weight estimates for extinct birds and feathered theropods as well, especially for those capable of flight which had well developed wing feathers. In the Haast´s eagle (Hiraaetus moorei) for example, the feathers of a specimen of 12,33 kg weighed around 0,85 kg alone.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Vögel | Schreib einen Kommentar

Berardius, the bus-sized deep sea predator with barnacle covered battle teeth

There is an enormous marine carnivore which grows as long as a bus, and most people are fully unaware of its very existence. Nearly everyone knows sperm whales, but if you would ask people about the world’s next largest extant predator (if we exclude baleen whales which are still carnivorous and sometimes surprisingly predatory), it’s very likely that a lot of people would struggle. Many would likely answer that orcas are the second largest carnivores, but this formidable predators are still not at the second range after sperm whales. In fact they aren’t even at the third range. I am sure that a lot of people would be very surprised to learn that there are besides sperm whales other predatory marine mammals larger than orcas in the world’s oceans. But hardly anyone could name them, and even those who know them are often not fully aware of their enormous size.

Baird´s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii) by Markus Bühler

The name of this beast is Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii), sometimes also called the giant beaked whale. This little known leviathan is an inhabitant of the northern pacific ocean, whereas its slightly smaller antarctic sister species, the Arnoux‘ beaked whale (Berardius arnuxii), inhabits the circumpolar oceans of the southern hemisphere. Giant animals gain usually a lot of attention, even more so if they are predatory. Even children’s books are full of sperm whales, baleen whales, orcas, whale sharks or basking sharks and you can see them in countless documentaries. So how could it be that Berardius somehow evaded to get attention? Beaked whales are in general quite elusive and still among the least known big mammals of the world.

Even today some species are only known from a handful of specimens and we still know nearly nothing about much of their behavior. As late as 2019 a „new“ species of Berardius was described from Japanese waters, Berardius minimus (more about earlier implications for this new species at Lord Geekington). It had been known to Japanese whalers since a long time and was called kuro-tsuchi (meaning „black Baird´s beaked whale). In contrast to B. bairdii which is greyish with some white markings in the chest area, B. minimus is nearly fully jet-black. It also differs in its body proportions from Berardius bairdii, which occurs in the same area. B. minimus has also a stouter melon, a shorter and more compact body shape and a much smaller size, growing „only“ to about 6,9 meters. It also seems to suffer more from cookie cutter sharks than Berardius bairdii, as the known specimens showed a particularly large number of bite scars from this parasitic sharks. On the other hand the overall amount of battle scars from intraspecific fights appears considerably lesser than in B. bairdii. Here is a wonderful illustration of Berardius minimus by Jaime Bran:

Berardius minumus by Jaime Bran

Battle teeth and barnacle-plaque

Most beaked whales have a highly reduced yet also highly specialized dentition. Cephalopods and smaller fish are caught by suction feeding for which teeth are not necessary, especially as most prey items are very small. The pair of lateral throat grooves and the well-developed hyoid bone and muscles can create a strong vacuum to literally suck in prey. In general only the males have teeth, usually a single pair. Beaked whales of the genus Berardius however have four remaining teeth in the lower jaw which also erupt in both sexes, whereas the upper jaw is completely toothless.

Head detail of Berardius bairdii with the extraorally located first pair of teeth.

The first pair is located at the top of the prognathic mandible and is functionally extraoral (narwhals are not the only cetaceans with such a condition, we see this also in many beaked whales) whereas the second pair of teeth remains hidden as long as the jaws are closed. Many thanks to Sally Evans who made some great photos of a Berardius arnuxii skull at the archives of the Natural history Museum in London for me.

Berardius arnuxii skull. You can see very well the how the lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw. Photo by Sally Evans

Those teeth are used during intraspecific fights and both males and females show scars from such confrontations. In some old males nearly the whole fore half of the back consists of scar tissue. Most of the scars were obviously caused by the first pair of the antagonist’s teeth, but sometimes you can also find four parallel lines of scars as well. I still wonder how exactly they manage to produce this kind of pattern. The parallel orientation of this scars means that the attacker scratched the skin either during a forward facing movement with widely open jaws or that it tried to bite the other whale and was moving backwards.

Detail of the body with various scars. Most of them are tusk scars from intraspecific fights, the round scars are cookiecutter shark scars.

The teeth in dorsal detail view.

Detail of the mandibular teeth of Berardius arnuxii. Photo by Sally Evans.

Adding scars to an animal is usually a fun part (much of the drawing and painting time is hard and exhausting work), it gives you the chance to give it some individuality and tell some stories of its life. But the amount of battle scars in Berardius is often of such an extreme extension over the body that I decided to depict it only with a very moderate amount of scars, like we see it in younger males. Too much white scar tissue makes it hard to see the original shape and anatomy of the body.

Due to the common use, the teeth they have also often strong abrasions in older individuals and can be worn down to the skin. Because those teeth are all the time surrounded by the sea, they get colonized by shell-less goose barnacles. This is a very common thing in beaked whales with extraoraly located teeth. In Berardius it’s mainly the marginal part of the teeth near the skin where the barnacles grow like a little brush. But sometimes the barnacles grow to quite considerable sizes, forming fleshy masses that look like kelp. You can see an example of excessive goose barnacle growth here.

Massive barnacle growth on the tusks of a Baird´s beaked whale. Scan from The Canadian field-naturalist (1993). Photos courtesty of H. Omura, from Leatherwood et al. (1982: 90). Source: Wikipedia

The social life of Berardius is weird to say it at least, and could well be a chapter of its own. So I´ll refer here to Cameron McCormick´s excellent blog article which also deals with this topic.

I wrote that Berardius minimus grows „only“ to about 7 meters. But how big is Berardius bairdii? The average is about 10-11 m, where males are somewhat smaller than females. The maximum recorded length for this species is 12,7 m and the maximum weight at around 10-15 tons. This is really enormous, bigger than every orca, and they range in a similar size class as the next biggest rorquals like the Bryde whale and Omura’s whale.

Dead Baird´s beaked whale at a whaling station at Japan. Scan from The Canadian field-naturalist (1993). Photos courtesty of H. Omura, from Leatherwood et al. (1982: 90). Source: Wikipedia

Arnoux´beaked whale is somewhat smaller but still reaches lengths of 9,75 m. As a result of the extreme sexual size dimorphism of Physeter the size range of Berardius even overlap with those of female sperm whales, and large Baird’s beaked whales are even longer than average-sized female sperm whales. Berardius bairdii also fills a similar ecological niche as Physeter and mainly feeds on cephalopods and fish in the deep sea. The main difference is that its diet does not include bigger prey species like large squids or sharks. But even sperm whales feed mainly on animals which’s are proportionally tiny and really large prey like adult giant squids are usually only consumed by males anyway. So it would be really interesting to know how much both species compete in areas where they are sympatric.

Here is a size comparison of a female B. bairdii with an average female sperm whale which I made during an early version of the illustration.

So far no one has ever seen Berardius hunting but it would be an incredible sight to watch those leviathans patrolling the floor of the north Pacific and sucking in half-meter long grenadiers. That’s why I tried to create an illustration of a hunting Baird’s beaked whale to give you some idea how this could look like. Right now, when you are reading this lines, something like this happens in reality, but in pure darkness. Just think about this, we life in an awesome world.

Berardius bairdii is a comparably opportunistic hunter which feeds on a large number of very different deep sea squid and fish. Grenadier fish or rat-tails make up a big part of their diet. This fish reaches usually lengths of about a 0,5-1 meter and stay usually close to the seafloor. In many areas they are among the most numerous deep sea fishes and make up much of the vertebrate biomass. Some species are even commercially fished. But Berardius also feeds on many other species, from codlings to lancetfish.

Pacific grenadiers are among the most important prey animals of B. bairdii

From examinations of stomach contents we also know various cephalopod prey species of Berardius bairdii, even small specimens of Architeuthis (the famous giant squid) were already recorded. It seems that hunting occurs mainly close to the seafloor and Berardius can dive at least to depths of 1777 meters.

Galiteuthis pacifica

I looked for various references for the sea floor and the other animals around. The small swarm of fish chased by the whale are Pacific grenadiers (Coryphaenoides acrolepis), the small translucent squid on the right a subadult specimen of Galiteuthis pacifica which is also known from stomach contents of B. bairdii. I also depicted a grey cutthroat (Synaphobranchus affinis), a deep sea eel which is also a known prey species.

Monster carcasses

The giant size, the somewhat unusual anatomy and the unfamiliarity of many people with beaked whales in general and the transformation powers of taphonomy resulted into several cases in which carcasses of Berardius bairdii were mistaken for sea monsters. One of the most famous cases, the Moore beach carcass (featured by Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology), is still often claimed as the alleged relics of a modern day plesiosaur. An upside down floating Berardius bairdii was assumed to be a late surviving archaeocete (also covered at Tetrapod Zoology). Another much more recent case from 2015 gained a lot of attention in the international press. The „bird-beaked“ and „hairy“ carcass which washed ashore at Sakhalin Island was assumed to be a giant hairy dolphin, a Ganges freshwater dolphin and even the relics of a mammoth from the permafrost which was somehow washed to the sea. This identifications are all highly absurd and it´s surprising that no real experts were asked for their expertise. The size, the shape of the skull and jaws, the melon and the visible flipper bones all clearly show it was a Berardius carcass, and the „hair“ is just a very common artifact of decomposition when tissue fibres disconects from each othe. Cameron McCormick wrote also about the sometimes bizarre effects of decomposition and scavenging on Berardius carcasses. I included some of those cases also in a talk which I gave in 2018 about „monster“ carcasses, in which I presented various cases of misidentified animals which were claimed to be monsters, „dinosaurs“ or other alleged prehistoric or unidentifiable beings which – according to tabloids and internet news – baffled scientists all the time. I explained how taphonomy can drastically change the appearance of an animal’s body and why cetacean carcasses in particular are so prone to get misidentified as monsters. It was especially important for me to show how you have to systematically examine such cases for the identification from anatomical traits which are usually not affected by mere degradation of soft tissue. But that’s another topic of its own which I want to cover another time.


Leatherwood, S., R.R. Reeves, W.F. Perrin, and W.E. Evans, 1982. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises of the eastern North Pacific and adjacent Arctic waters, A guide to their identification, NOAA Tech. Rept., NMFS Circular 444, 245 pp.

Ohizumi, H., Isoda, T., Kishiro, T., Kato, H., 2003. Feeding habits of Baird’s beaked whale Berardius bairdii, in the western North Pacific and Sea of Okhotsk off Japan. Fisheries Sci 69, 11–20.


Yamada, T.K., Kitamura, S., Abe, S., Tajima, Y., Matsuda, A., Mead, J.G., Matsuishi, T.F., 2019. Description of a new species of beaked whale (Berardius) found in the North Pacific. Sci Rep 9, 12723.

Veröffentlicht unter Illustration, Kryptozoologie, Tiefsee, Wale | Schreib einen Kommentar

The feathered Warsaw Dilophosaurus

Originally I wanted to continue the series about the Messel-fossils, but I am still working on a reconstruction illustration for the next part and needed a break. Instead I´ll jump on the Dilophosaurus bandwagon, because this awesome theropod from the Early Jurassic is just big in the news, and it´s a good excuse to finally post some photos about a quite unconventional yet very cool Dilophosaurus reconstruction from the Geological Museum in Warsaw. I don´t even want to go here into the details of the new publication but mainly show you some photos which I took several years ago in Warsaw:

Dilophosaurus reconstruction in the Geological Museum Warsaw. Photo by Markus Bühler

As you can see, nearly the complete body of this reconstruction is covered in filament-like feathers, quite in contrast to the common depiction of Dilophosaurus with nothing but naked scaly skin. This is btw not the first time I wrote about this species. Years ago I already discussed why the popular idea that it was just a scavenger was not really likely.

Dilophosaurus head detail. Photo by Markus Bühler

Here´s a detail of the head. It´s not that easy to see from this direction, but the artists even added some fin bristle like feathers to the head.

Dilophosaurus in frontal view with nice bristles. The crests are rather thin, but the new research has shown the were possibly much more volumous in reality. Photo by Markus Bühler

It comes already quite close to the new (and pretty awesome-looking) reconstruction by Brian Engh. Of course this version does inclued a pretty large amount of artistic freedom regarding the soft tissue reconstruction, but it looks really very interesting. Brian´s Dilophosaurus puppet is also a wonderful example how life-like well-made models can look and how superior they still are compared with most CGI attempts. Take a look at this video by Brian, which includes also some information about the news from the paper.

The appearance of the Warsaw Dilophosaurus is even more surprising given the fact that the model was created in 1997 by Marta Szubert. At that time theropods were still nearly universally portrayed without any feathers or filaments and hardly anyone considered to depict a big theropod with anything else than scaly skin.

The featherless parts of the arms and legs of the model from Warsaw were also quite nicely sculpted, especially the scale patterns of the feet looked highly realistical (more about the scale patterns on the legs of ostrichs and emus).

There was a huge amount of information which was used to create this reconstruction, for example various body impressions.

Here is another photo in full lateral view. I really love how the tail was covered in alternating black and white feathers.

In 2013 Darren Naish already wrote another blog article with some additional background information about the history of this particular reconstruction. I highly recommand to read it.

If you ever visit Warsaw, you should really take some time and visit the Geological Museum. Its paleontological section is not quite big, as it mainyl focuses on geology and mineralogy, but it´s still really worth to visit. If you want to see more fossils, including the likely best exhibition about Tarboaurus, you have to visit the Museum of Evolution, which is located in the monumental Palace of Culture.

Veröffentlicht unter Dinosaurier | 3 Kommentare