World's rarest whale seen for the first time

Nov 05, 2012
When two of the exceedingly rare spade-toothed whales washed up on a New Zealand shore, they were initially mistaken for the more common Gray's beaked whales (pictured here). Credit: New Zealand Government

A whale that is almost unknown to science has been seen for the first time after two individuals—a mother and her male calf—were stranded and died on a New Zealand beach. A report in the November 6th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, offers the first complete description of the spade-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon traversii), a species previously known only from a few bones.

The discovery is the first evidence that this whale is still with us and serves as a reminder of just how little we still know about life in the ocean, the researchers say. The findings also highlight the importance of DNA typing and reference collections for the identification of .

"This is the first time this species—a whale over five meters in length—has ever been seen as a complete specimen, and we were lucky enough to find two of them," says Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland. "Up until now, all we have known about the spade-toothed beaked whale was from three partial collected from New Zealand and Chile over a 140-year period. It is remarkable that we know almost nothing about such a large ."

The two whales were discovered in December 2010, when they live-stranded and subsequently died on Opape Beach, New Zealand. The New Zealand Department of Conservation was called to the scene, where they photographed the animals and collected measurements and .

In this Dec. 31, 2010 photo provided by New Zealand Department of Conservation, a rare female spade-toothed beaked whale lays dead on Opape Beach, in New Zealand. The spade-toothed beaked whale is so rare, nobody has seen one alive. But scientists are sure it exists. Researchers from New Zealand and the United States describe the discovery in a paper published Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in the journal "Current Biology." They say it's the first time scientists are able to describe the world's "rarest and perhaps most enigmatic" marine mammal. Credit: New Zealand Department of Conservation

The whales were initially identified not as spade-toothed but as much more common Gray's beaked whales. Their true identity came to light only following , which is done routinely as part of a 20-year program to collect data on the 13 species of beaked whales found in New Zealand waters.

"When these specimens came to our lab, we extracted the DNA as we usually do for samples like these, and we were very surprised to find that they were spade-toothed beaked whales," Constantine says. "We ran the samples a few times to make sure before we told everyone."

The researchers say they really have no idea why the whales have remained so elusive.

"It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore," Constantine says. "New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us."

Explore further: Jaws meets kangaroo? Rare, cute pocket shark found in deep

More information: Thompson et al.: "The World's Rarest Whale." Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.055

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User comments : 10

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2.4 / 5 (10) Nov 05, 2012
The sad irony is that it reqquired that the whales die for us to get to know them. And of course our activities might be the most probable cause.
1 / 5 (3) Nov 05, 2012
this happened in Dec 2010 --- talk about recycled

1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 05, 2012
This picture is dated to 1977 - so are we living in alternate reality - or the journalists aren't able to verify even the most trivial facts before publishing their sensationalist nonsense?
2.9 / 5 (7) Nov 05, 2012
The sad irony is that it reqquired that the whales die for us to get to know them. And of course our activities might be the most probable cause

That's not true. Not even close. These things have so little contact with people that it's highly unlikely that humans had anything to do with this. We've never even seen one of these before. That means they obviously don't stick around in the same places that people go. If they hunted in fishing waters we would catch them by accident all the time. If they hung around shore, more bodies would wash up from natural deaths.

The mother was probably sick or something. There are historical accounts of beached whales going all the way back to the earliest times we have stories from. People are not the cause of whales beaching themselves.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
It's nice to know about another species that won't be with us much longer.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
You conspiracy theorists are idiots. Read the caption again, and maybe a 3rd 4th and 5th time... maybe then you can see where you are misinterpreting things.
5 / 5 (9) Nov 05, 2012
@ El Nose: The paper is published _now_, of course! Think and/or check. What are you, 5 years old?

The DNA analysis and paper publication was between the initial find and now. (Give each about a year, it fits. Not that it matters.)

@ ValeriaT:

Already the post discussed different beaked whale species. What can an irrelevant picture tell us here? Nothing.
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 05, 2012
Already the post discussed different beaked whale species. What can an irrelevant picture tell us here? Nothing.
I see - you're right. My apology to innocent journalists comes here.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 06, 2012
It's nice to know about another species that won't be with us much longer

That's an odd presumption. Do you have any information about this species? Nobody knows anything about this species. To assume that they are threatened just because we can't find them is fallacious. Is their food source dwindling? Are they diseased? Are thier population numbers decreasing? Are offspring getting smaller and weaker? Since we don't know any of those things, you can't justify your comment. There are many species which have increasing populations right now, such as mountain lions and grey wolves. Mountain lions were thought to be extinct in the central US, because people didn't see them. Only when we installed traffic cameras on freeways and police cars did people become aware of a healthy and growing population of mountain lions there. If these whales compete with some other species that's failing, these whales could benefit. There's no way to know right now.
1 / 5 (3) Nov 06, 2012

@ El Nose: The paper is published _now_, of course! Think and/or check. What are you, 5 years old?

No i am not 5. i just read this story two years ago... And I still don't see the point in reprinting it 2 years later JUST because someone wrote a paper on the subject. This is old news.

Papers are coming out even now reviewing data collected 20 years ago. They become newsworthy if they add something new to the field. This paper does not pass that criteria.

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