World’s Rarest Whale Seen for First Time after New Zealand Beaching

Two spade-toothed beaked whales – the world’s rarest whales – were recently discovered beach-cast in New Zealand.

A rare female spade-toothed beaked whale lays dead on Opape Beach, in New Zealand, on Dec. 31, 2010. The spade-toothed beaked whale is so rare, nobody has seen one alive. Researchers from New Zealand and the United States describe the discovery in a paper published Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in the journal ‘Current Biology.’ Photo: New Zealand Department of Conservation

The South Pacific Ocean, a huge water area of 85 million square kilometers that occupies 14 percent of the Earth’s surface, serves as a natural habitat for many rare deep-water species. Recently scientists have found new proofs of this well-known fact. According to the paper published yesterday in the Current Biology Journal, the spade-toothed beaked whale, reckoned to be an extinct species, still exists.

It should be noted that these mammals, called Mesoplodon traversii are the least known species of whale as they have never been seen alive. It is precisely this fact that explains why two animals found stranded in New Zealand in late December 2010 were misidentified as Gray’s beaked whales.

The 17-foot whale and her calf were beach-cast on Opape Beach at the northern tip of New Zealand. Conservation workers regarded the carcasses as a common type of whale, took tissue samples and buried both animals about nine feet under the sand.

Fortunately the samples fell into good hands – they were used by scientists of the University of Auckland in routine DNA analysis and testing that helped to reveal the true identity of this species.

Rouchelle Constantine, a co-author of the Current Biology Report, and her colleagues were really surprised with the results showing the mammals to be the world’s rarest whales. “Kirsten and I went quiet. We were pretty stunned,” she said adding: ” 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”.

In order to confirm the discovery some further tests were made. The researches have also retested more than 160 samples taken from other stranded Gray’s whales, but there weren’t any others misidentified.

Once rare species was genetically identified, scientists went to Opape Beach in order to unearth the skeletal remains, which then were taken to New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa for morphological analysis.

According to Anton van Helden, a manager of the museum’s marine mammals collection, it was quite a complicated task to find the skeletons as a long period of time had passed and the skull of whale-mother washed out to sea. Nevertheless researchers managed to retrieve the rest of them.

According to the paper’s authors the discovery of spade-toothed beaked whale species emphasizes the significance of DNA analysis together with application of specimens collections and photos of stranded animals. Moreover it also gives an ample insight into ocean’s complex ecosystems.

Reportedly, first discoveries of spade-toothed beaked whales were made in 1872, once they came across bone fragments of unknown specimen on the far-off Chatham Island in the Pacific.

140 years past since these first findings and nothing but two partial skulls found on White Island in New Zealand in the 1950s and on Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile in 1986 were the only signs of  spade-toothed beaked whales’ existence.

However until now all the facts known about this species were based on the lack of records and the total absence of previous sightings.

Commenting on their discovery, researchers in their report published in Current Biology say the following: “For the first time we have a description of the world’s rarest and perhaps most enigmatic marine mammal”.

It should be noted that these mammals, called Mesoplodon traversii are the least known species of whale as they have never been seen alive. It is precisely this fact that explains why two animals found stranded in New Zealand in late December 2010 were misidentified as Gray’s beaked whales.

It should be noted that these mammals, called Mesoplodon traversii are the least known species of whale as they have never been seen alive. It is precisely this fact that explains why two animals found stranded in New Zealand in late December 2010 were misidentified as Gray’s beaked whales.

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