Photo: New Zealand Department of Conservation
A species of beaked whale known previously only from bone fragments has been seen for the first time after a mother and calf recently washed up on a New Zealand shoreline. Called the spade-toothed beaked whale, the species has understandably been hailed as the world's rarest whale.
While it's unfortunate that the first sighting of the animal comes with such a tragic scene, scientists are thrilled at the chance to learn more about this mysterious species. Until this stranding, it was unclear that the species even still existed.
"This is the first time a spade-toothed beaked whale has been seen as a complete specimen, and we were lucky enough to find two of them. It's incredible to think that, until recently, such a large animal was concealed in the South Pacific Ocean and shows how little we know about ocean biodiversity," said lead scientist Dr. Rochelle Constantine.
Beaked whales as a group are among the least understood mammals in the world because of their elusive deep-sea, open ocean lifestyle. None of the 21 recognized species are well known to the public; In fact, only a few of them are well known to biologists. They are characterized by their elongated beaks and their tusks, and are capable of diving to extreme depths: to over 1,000 fathoms.
The spade-toothed beaked whale was first identified in 1872 from bones found on the Chatham Islands off New Zealand. Since then, other skull and jaw fragments have been found around New Zealand and Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile. It took DNA testing to determine that the mysterious whale recently washed ashore was in fact a member of the species.
Because a whole specimen had not been identified until now, it's possible that the animal has actually been spotted before but was confused for a better-known species of beaked whale. Or maybe they really are ghosts of the southern seas, never to have been seen alive. The good news is that now scientists will be able to more clearly recognize them on sight, if such an event ever does occur in the future.
"That's where our work is really helpful, for the first time we have an idea of what the spade-toothed beaked whale looks like," said Constantine to mongabay.com.
By Bryan Nelson