Sowerby's beaked whale biosonar and movement strategy indicate deep-sea foraging niche differentiation in mesoplodont whales

J Exp Biol. 2022 May 1;225(9):jeb243728. doi: 10.1242/jeb.243728. Epub 2022 May 12.


Closely related species are expected to diverge in foraging strategy, reflecting the evolutionary drive to optimize foraging performance. The most speciose cetacean genus, Mesoplodon, comprises beaked whales with little diversity in external morphology or diet, and overlapping distributions. Moreover, the few studied species of beaked whales (Ziphiidae) show very similar foraging styles with slow, energy-conserving movement during long, deep foraging dives. This raises the question of what factors drive their speciation. Using data from animal-attached tags and aerial imagery, we tested the hypothesis that two similar-sized mesoplodonts, Sowerby's (Mesoplodon bidens) and Blainville's (Mesoplodon densirostris) beaked whales, exploit a similar low-energy niche. We show that, compared with the low-energy strategist Blainville's beaked whale, Sowerby's beaked whale lives in the fast lane. While targeting a similar mesopelagic/bathypelagic foraging zone, they consistently swim and hunt faster, perform shorter deep dives, and echolocate at a faster rate with higher frequency clicks. Further, extensive near-surface travel between deep dives challenges the interpretation of beaked whale shallow inter-foraging dives as a management strategy for decompression sickness. The distinctively higher frequency echolocation clicks do not hold apparent foraging benefits. Instead, we argue that a high-speed foraging style influences dive duration and echolocation behaviour, enabling access to a distinct prey population. Our results demonstrate that beaked whales exploit a broader diversity of deep-sea foraging and energetic niches than hitherto suspected. The marked deviation of Sowerby's beaked whales from the typical ziphiid foraging strategy has potential implications for their response to anthropogenic sounds, which appears to be strongly behaviourally driven in other ziphiids.

Keywords: Mesoplodon bidens; Deep-sea foraging ecology; Echolocation; Niche differentiation; Pace-of-life syndrome; Ziphiidae.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustics
  • Animals
  • Echolocation* / physiology
  • Movement
  • Swimming
  • Whales* / physiology

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.sj3tx9673