November 7th, 2012 by James Ayre
A five-meter-long whale that has remained almost unknown by science has recently been seen for the first time. Previously, these whales had only been known from a handful of bones collected over the past few hundred years.
Two individuals have actually been found, a mother and her male calf. They were recently stranded and died on a beach in New Zealand. These bodies are offering the first complete first-hand scientific description of the spade-toothed beaked whale, Mesoplodon traversii.
This is the first evidence that we have that this species is still living and not extinct. And a reminder of how much is still unknown about the life and species that currently live, and in the past may have lived, on the earth. The findings also clearly show “the importance of DNA typing and reference collections for the identification of rare species.”
“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 skulls collected from New Zealand and Chile over a 140-year period. It is remarkable that we know almost nothing about such a large mammal.”
The two whales were found on Opape Beach, New Zealand in December 2010. When they stranded, they were actually both still alive, but then subsequently died. The New Zealand Department of Conservation photographed and collected measurements and tissue samples from the whales.
“The whales were initially identified not as spade-toothed beaked whales but as much more common Gray’s beaked whales. Their true identity came to light only following DNA analysis, 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 don’t have any real idea as to why the whales have been so elusive, for so long.
“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.”
The findings were just published in the November 6th issue of Current Biology.
Some background on the whale species via Wikipedia:
“The spade-toothed whale (Mesoplodon traversii) is a very little known (and also the rarest) species of beaked whale. It was first named from a partial jaw found on Pitt Island (New Zealand) in 1872, reported and illustrated in 1873 by James Hector, and described the next year by John Edward Gray, who named it in honor of Henry Hammersley Travers, the collector. This was eventually lumped with the strap-toothed whale, starting as early as 1878 (Hector 1878, who never considered the specimen to be specifically distinct). A calvaria found in the 1950s at White Island (also New Zealand) initially remained undescribed, but was later believed to be from a ginkgo-toothed beaked whale.
“In 1986, a damaged calvaria was found washed up on Robinson Crusoe Island (Chile), and was described as a new species, Mesoplodon bahamondi or Bahamonde’s beaked whale.”
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