Dr Merel Dalebout
Visiting Fellow
Contact details:
+61 2 9385 8294

Room 503, D26 Building
UNSW, Kensington 2052

Research & Current Projects

  • Use of molecular markers to infer current and historical population dynamics
  • Speciation and its causal processes
  • Molecular systematics of cetaceans
  • Molecular monitoring of trade in endangered species
  • Utility of molecular data for conservation biology and management

The family Ziphiidae (beaked whales) are one of the least known of all vertebrate groups. Small to medium-sized cetaceans, 3.5 - 12 m in length, beaked whales are found in deep, pelagic waters of all ocean basins except the highest latitudes of the Arctic. With their incredible diving capacity (some species make regular dives of over an hour down to 1400 m or more), relatively low abundance, and elusive behaviour, these squid-eating whales are generally very difficult to study at sea. Most of what is known has come from the remains of dead stranded specimens. This large family consists of 21 species scattered over 6 genera. The vast majority of these species belong to the genus Mesoplodon (n = 14 and counting). All the other genera are monotypic or consist of antitropical north-south species pairs.

There is comparatively little differentiation in external morphology among Mesoplodon species, with the exception of the large tusk-like teeth of the adult males. (Females and juveniles are effectively toothless - the single pair of teeth do not develop and remain hidden in the gum). These tusks are not used for feeding. Instead, the males use them as weapons in intra-specific combat with other males. This has never been observed but has been inferred from the deep tooth-rake scars typically observed on the backs of adult male beaked whales.

We are using nuclear introns and mitochondrial DNA sequences to investigate the roles of species identification and sexual selection in the evolution and diversification of this unique genus of whales.

See also:



Dalebout, M. L., Baker, C. S., Steel, D., Thompson, K., Robertson, K., Chivers, S. J., et al. (2014). Resurrection ofMesoplodon hotaula Deraniyagala 1963: a new species of beaked whale in the tropical Indo-Pacific. Marine Mammal  Science, Accepted November 2013; available online 5 February 2014.

Baker, C. S., Hutt, A., Thompson, K., Dalebout, M. L., Robins, J., & Stone, G. S. (2013). Species identity and human consumption of beaked whales in the Gilbert Islands, Republic of Kiribati. Animal Conservation, Article first published online: 21 March 2013. DOI: 10.1111/acv.12039.

Thompson, K. F., Millar, C. D., Baker, C. S., Dalebout, M. L., Steel, D., van Helden, A. L., & R., C. (2013). A novel conservation approach provides insights into the management of rare cetaceans. Biological Conservation, 157, 331-340.

Otley, H., Smith, J. M., & Dalebout, M. L. (2011). Beaked whale strandings on the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, South Atlantic Ocean, between 1866 and 2008. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, doi:10.1017/S0025315411000749.

Rendell, L., Mesnick, S. L., Dalebout, M. L., Burtenshaw, J., & Whitehead, H. (2011). Can genetic differences explain vocal dialect variation in sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalusBehavioural Genetics, DOI 10.1007/s10519-011-9513-y.

Best, P. B., Glass, J. P., Ryan, P. G., & Dalebout, M. L. (2009). Cetacean records from Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 89(5), 1023-1032.

Lukoschek, V., Funahashi, N., Lavery, S., Dalebout, M. L., Cipriano, F., & Baker, C. S. (2009). High proportions of protected minke whales sold on Japanese markets is due to illegal, unreported or unregulated exploitation.Animal Conservation, doi:10.1111/j.1469-1795.2009.00302.x.

Oremus, M., Gales, R., Dalebout, M. L., Funahashi, N., Endo, T., Kage, T., et al. (2009). Worldwide mtDNA diversity and phylogeography of pilot whales (Globicephala spp.). Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 98, 729–744.

Dalebout, M. L., Steel, D., & Baker, C. S. (2008). Phylogeny of the beaked whale genus Mesoplodon (Ziphiidae: Cetacea) revealed by nuclear introns: implications for the evolution of male tusks. Systematic Biology, 57(6), 857 — 875. doi: 10.1080/10635150802559257

Dalebout, M. L. (2008). Family Ziphiidae: beaked and bottlenose whales. In S. Van Dyck & R. Strahan (Eds.),Mammals of Australia (pp. 814). Sydney: Reed New Holland.

Dalebout, M. L. (2008). Longman's beaked whale Indopacetus pacificus. In S. Van Dyck & R. Strahan (Eds.),Mammals of Australia (pp. 820-821). Sydney: Reed New Holland.

Baker, C. S., & Dalebout, M. L. (2008). Forensic genetics of cetaceans. In W. F. Perrin, B. Wursig & J. G. M. Thewissen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Frere, C. H., P. Hale, V. G. Cockcroft, L. Porter, and M. L. Dalebout. 2008. Phylogenetic analysis of mtDNA sequences suggests revision of Sousa taxonomy is needed. Marine and Freshwater Research 59:259-268.  
Dalebout, M. L., K. M. Robertson, S. J. Chivers, and A. Samuels. 2008. DNA identification and the impact of Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing on rare whales in Micronesian waters. Micronesica 40:139-147.  
Dalebout, M. L., C. S. Baker, D. Steel, K. M. Robertson, S. J. Chivers, W. F. Perrin, J. G. Mead, R. V. Grace, and D. Schofield. 2007. A divergent mtDNA lineage among Mesoplodon beaked whales: molecular evidence for a new whale in the Tropical Pacific? Marine Mammal  Science 23:954-966.  
Baker, C. S., J. G. Cooke, S. Lavery, M. L. Dalebout, Y.-U. Ma, N. Funahashi, C. Carraher, and R. L. Brownell. 2007. Estimating the number of whales entering trade using DNA profiling and capture-recapture analysis of market products. Molecular Ecology 16:2617-2626. For a copy of this paper, please email Merel Dalebout.
Dalebout ML, Ruzzante DE, Whitehead H, Øien NI (2006). Nuclear and mitochondrial markers reveal the distinctiveness of a small population of bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus) in the western North Atlantic. Molecular Ecology, 15: 3115-3129.  
Baker, C. S., V. Lukoschek, S. Lavery, M. L. Dalebout, Y.-U. Ma, T. Endo, and N. Funahashi. 2006. Incomplete reporting of whale, dolphin and porpoise 'bycatch' revealed by molecular monitoring of Korean markets. Animal Conservation: available online early.  
Ruzzante, D. E., S. J. Walde, V. E. Cussac, M. L. Dalebout, J. Seibert, S. Ortubay, and E. Habit. (2006). Phylogeography of the Percichthyidae (Pisces) in Patagonia: roles of orogeny and glaciation and volcanism. Molecular Ecology, 15: 2949-2968.  
Gomercic, H., M. D. Gomercic, T. Gomercic, H. Lucic, M. L. Dalebout, A. Galov, D. Skrtic, S. Curkovic, S. Vukovic, and D. Huber. (2006). Biological aspects of Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) recorded in the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea. European Journal of Wildlife Research, available on-line.  
Dalebout, M. L., K. M. Robertson, A. Frantzis, D. Engelhaupt, A. A. Mignucci-Giannoni, R. J. Rosario-Delestre, and C. S. Baker. (2005). Worldwide structure of mtDNA diversity among Cuvier's beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris); implications for threatened populations. Molecular Ecology, 14:3353-3371.  
Endo, T., K. Haraguchi, Y. Hotta, Y. Hisamichi, S. Lavery, M. L. Dalebout, and C. S. Baker. 2005. Total mercury, methyl mercury, and selenium levels in the red meat of small cetaceans sold for human consumption in Japan. Environmental Science and Technology, 39:5703-5708.  
Dalebout, M. L., Russell, K. G., Little, M. J. & Ensor, P. 2004. Observations of live Gray's beaked whales (Mesoplodon grayi) in Mahurangi Harbour, North Island, New Zealand, with a summary of at-sea sightings. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 34, 347-356.
Dalebout, M.L, Baker, C.S., Cockcroft ,V.G., Mead, J.G., and Yamada, T.K. 2004. A comprehensive and validated molecular taxonomy of beaked whales, family Ziphiidae. Journal of Heredity 96, 459-473.
Baker, C.S., Dalebout, M.L., Cipriano, F., & Funahashi, N. A plausible range of incidental takes for RMP implementation simulation trials of North Pacific minke whale. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management. Appendix 9, 132. (Vol. 5, supplmt, Annex D.)
Baker, C.S., Dalebout, M.L., Lavery, S. & Ross, H.A. 2003. www.DNA-surveillance:applied molecular taxonomy for species conservation and discovery. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18, 271-272.
Ross, H.A., Lento, G.M., Dalebout, M.L., Goode, M., Ewing, G., McLaren, P., Rodrigo, A.G., Lavery, S., & Baker, C.S. 2003 DNA Surveillance: Web-based molecular identification of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Journal of Heredity 94, 111-114.
Dalebout, M.L., G. J. B. Ross, C. S. Baker, R. C. Anderson, P. B. Best, V. G. Cockcroft, H. L. Hinsz, V. Peddemors, & R. L. Pitman. 2003 Appearance, distribution and genetic distinctiveness of Longman's beaked whale, Indopacetus pacificus. Marine Mammal Science 19, 421-461.
Berrow, S.D., Dalebout, M.L., & Conroy J. 2002 Cuvier's whale Ziphius cavirostris Cuvier [description of specimen # ZcaIRL-X3] Irish Naturalists' Journal 27, 168-169.
Berrow, S.D. & Dalebout, M.L. 2002 Cuvier's whale Ziphius cavirostris Cuvier [description of specimen # ZcaIRL-X2] 2002 Irish Naturalist's Journal 27, 167-168.
Dalebout, M.L. 2002 Species identity, genetic diversity and molecular systematic relationships among the Ziphiidae (beaked whales). PhD thesis, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.
Dalebout, M.L., Mead, J.G., Baker, C.S., Baker, A.N. & van Helden, A. L. 2002 A new species of beaked whale Mesoplodon perrini sp. n. (Cetacea: Ziphiidae) discovered through phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA sequences. Marine Mammal Science 18, 577-608.
van Helden, A.L., Baker, A.N., Dalebout, M.L., Reyes, J.C., Van Waerebeek, K. & Baker, C.S. 2002 Resurrection of Mesoplodon traversii (Gray, 1874), senior synonym of M. bahamondi Reyes, Van Waerebeek, Cárdenas and Yañez, 1995 (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Marine Mammal Science 18, 609-621.
Dalebout, M.L., Lento, G.M., Cipriano, F., Funahashi, N. & Baker, C.S. 2002 How many protected minke whales are sold in Japan and Korea? A census by microsatellite DNA profiling. Animal Conservation 5, 143-152.
Gales, N.J., Dalebout, M.L. & Bannister, J. 2002 Genetic identification and biological observation of two free-swimming beaked whales: Hector's beaked whale (Mesoplodon hectori, Gray, 1871), and Gray's beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi, von Haast, 1876). Marine Mammal Science 17, 544-551.
Baker, C.S., Dalebout, M.L., Lento, G.M. & Funahashi, N. 2002 Gray whale products sold in commercial markets along the Pacific coast of Japan. Marine Mammal Science 17, 295-300.
Dalebout, M.L., Hooker, S.K. & Christensen, I. 2001 Genetic diversity and population structure among northern bottlenose whales, Hyperoodon ampullatus, in the western North Atlantic Ocean.Canadian Journal of Zoology 79, 478-484.
Pichler, F.B., Dalebout, M.L. & Baker, C.S. 2001 Non-destructive DNA extraction from sperm whale teeth and scrimshaw. Molecular Ecology Notes 1, 106-109.
Baker, C.S., Lento, G.M., Cipriano, F., Dalebout, M.L. & Palumbi, S.R. 2000 Scientific whaling: source of illegal products for market? Science 290, 1695.
Gowans, S., Dalebout, M.L., Hooker, S.H. & Whitehead, H. 2000 Reliability of photographic and molecular techniques for sexing bottlenose whales, Hyperoodon ampullatus. Canadian Journal of Zoology 78, 1224-1229.
Dalebout, M.L., van Helden, A., Van Waerebeek, K. & Baker, C.S. 1998 Molecular genetic identification of southern hemisphere beaked whales (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Molecular Ecology 7, 687-694.

Baker, C.S., Lento, G.M., Dalebout, M.L., & Pichler, F. 2003. DNA surveys and surveillance of marine mammals: species identification, discovery and management. In Marine Mammals and Humans. Eds. N. Gales, M. Hindell & R. Kirkwood. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing. Pp. 366-382. 



Dalebout, M.L. 2002. Bare bones & beaked whales [popular science article]. Nature Australia. Spring 2002, 64-71.

Dalebout, M.L. & Baker C. S. 2002. Mesoplodon perrini sp. n. Dalebout, Mead, Baker, Baker and van Helden 2002: notification of new species of living beaked whale (Ziphiidae) from the eastern North Pacific. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 59: 284-286.