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World's Rarest Whale Seen For First Time, Washed Up Dead On Kiwi Beach; 'We Know Almost Nothing About Such A Large Mammal'
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- 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 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 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 tissue samples.

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 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."

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of UnderwaterTimes.com, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

10 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

what is the reason to be killing any species when there is enough death all around us everyday?If from age /elderly then let" them" die in peace.
   comment# 1   - margaretpeters · usa · Nov 5, 2012 @ 10:09pm

there was a large earthquake in canada 7.7 that had water warnings to e-vac the beach. i THINK that it made an impact on all water life for thousands of miles under the water. it's possible that these whales were in an area effected by the quake under ground. maybe for the first time...and they died. human's have similar events to odd effects with quakes also. it was so weird in kiwi @ this time. check weather conditions in the area @ the time before they washed up. do the CSI thing and find out for us. will wait to see futher posts from you. thanks for the story!
   comment# 2   - speck · steamboat springs , colorado · Nov 5, 2012 @ 10:56pm

I agree that earth events can impact all that exists upon it, but the recent earthquake would have had to travel thru time to accomplish that...."The two whales were discovered in December 2010". Would love to hear some updates on this story and the spade-toothed whales.
   comment# 3   - Spudnick · Calgary, Canada · Nov 6, 2012 @ 7:47am

The article states that the whales washed ashore - stranding themselves, not that humans stranded them there. And from what I have been a witness too, more often than not humans attempt to unbeach the mammals when they are able to. It may just be that the folks who discovered them were not strong enough to move the whales back into the water, or that they were to far up from the water-line (that's where the waves crash on the beach). The article doesn't state whether the whales were healthy when they did the DNA testing, so it maybe the mother ate bad fish, or they were "corralled" by another type of whale - aka Orcas/Killer Whales, and were lucky enough to get away, but beached themselves in the process. Or like Speck suggests that other "natural" causes caused them to be confused.
   comment# 4   - 1Earthling · Laurel, MD · Nov 6, 2012 @ 8:04am

@ Margaret Peters -- if you read the story, nobody killed these rare whales. They were stranded on the beach and died. I agree that there's no reason to kill them, but I won't complain when it didn't happen. As for letting them die in peace, sure - but once dead, let the biologists learn as much as they can from these precious specimens. The more we learn, the better we may be able to protect them in the future.
   comment# 5   - Wayne Anderson · Sacramento, CA USA · Nov 6, 2012 @ 1:11pm

Pretty cool article and what a lovely specimen. Hope to hear more on this amazing discovery. PS. margaretpeters, I don't think they killed the animal. Whales that wash up on shore usually die from exposure, not to mention most of those that become beached sometimes have other serious complications. I understand your concern, but in this case a "murder" wasn't committed.
   comment# 6   - Jane · Phoenix, USA · Nov 6, 2012 @ 1:38pm

Awesome.. u guys out there are doing fanstatic research work.. thks a million..
   comment# 7   - jefrilee · Malaysia · Nov 7, 2012 @ 2:41am

working with the wildlife as a rehaber for the state. I do not disagree with the collection of samples from a dead animal. as stated they did not kill these animals... We need to know more about how we can presearve them. The oceans of this world are still a vast unknown area that needs more exploration for our own survival. I loved the artical. I too would like to hear some updates on this story
   comment# 8   - B.J. Sisson · Woodville Tx. · Nov 7, 2012 @ 7:23am

It is not unusual for sick or disoriented whales to beach themselves. This presents an incredible opportunity for science to conduct research on a previously unknown species. Any time science moves forward it is a positive. I will be looking for their published findings.
   comment# 9   - Kenny Metal · Roldanillo, Colombia · Nov 7, 2012 @ 8:18am

Perhaps if the two were Mother and child, or male and female Mates the Orca/killer whales may have run them ashore as they'd hope the larger attackers would back off to save themselves from shallow waters and the wake alone from such a huge predator make have caused them too much momentum to recover back into the ocean, especially since they were top speeding away from being eaten. (Just a thought.) Id love to know more about your studies about them and photos, etc. Search out Orkas located in the area of possible attack. Perhaps there are more,
   comment# 10   - Frankie M Clark · Dunedin, FL USA · Nov 9, 2012 @ 8:37am
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