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Whale Found On New Zealand Beach Was A Very Rare Specimen

November 5, 2012
Image Caption: 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. Credit: New Zealand Government

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Perhaps one of the greatest things about science is that there´s still so much left to discover. Though scientists have been studying and cataloguing the world for hundreds of years, there are still creatures and mysteries which continue to elude us.

Take, for instance, the spade-toothed whale. According to the Telegraph, scientists weren´t aware of this species of whale until some pieces of bone were discovered on an isolated Pacific island in 1872. Since then, this whale has successfully kept itself hidden from human eyes. This whale has remained so far out of human view that the only time scientists are sure it exists is when pieces of their skulls wash up on shore, once in New Zealand in the 1950s and once in Chile in 1986.

In 2010, a pair of these whales, a mother and her calf, became stranded and died in New Zealand. However, since scientists had yet to lay eyes on one of these creatures, they mistook them for the more common Gray´s beaked whale. After routinely studying the DNA of these whales, scientists have discovered that these were in fact spade-toothed whales, proving that this species still exists.

“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,” explained Dr. Rochelle Constantine from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland in a recent statement.

“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 mother spade-toothed whale and her calf were stranded on Opape Beach in December 2010 and later died.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation was called once these whales were discovered on the beach. Once they arrived, this team began their routine duties of taking measurements, photographing the animals, and collecting tissue samples. When the team left the site, they were sure these whales belonged to the more common Gray´s species of whales.

As a part of a 20-year program to collect data about the many species of beaked whales in the New Zealand waters, the team also extracted and ran tests on the whales´ DNA.

“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,” said Dr. Constantine.

“We ran the samples a few times to make sure before we told everyone.”

The researchers are still unsure as to why these whales remain so elusive and keep so far out of sight. According to Dr. Constantine, this discovery is also further proof that there is still so much more about the sea that we´ve yet to uncover.

“It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore,” said Dr. Constantine.

“New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us.”

Results are published in the November 6th issue of Current Biology.


Source: Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online



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