The world’s rarest whale, which has remained a mystery to scientists for over 100 years, has been seen for the first time.
The five-metre whale was washed up on a beach with its calf in New Zealand, offering the first evidence for decades that the species still exists.
The spade-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon traversii) had not been seen for the past 140 years, except for the odd skull that has washed up on shore.
But two years ago the whale and its male calf washed up on Opape Beach. Sadly they died, but researchers were able to collect measurements and tissue samples which helped them identify the species.
The whales were initially misidentified as the much more common Gray’s beaked whales, but their true identity came to light 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.
The spade-tooth beaked whale also looks quite similar to other similar species, making spotting it even trickier.
Researcher at the University of Auckland Rochelle Constantine said: ‘It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore.
‘New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us.’
Writing for the journal, Rochelle Constantine added: ‘This is the first time this species - a whale over five metres in length - has ever been seen as a complete specimen, and we were lucky enough to find two of them.
‘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.’
Researchers at the University of Auckland say the findings also highlight the importance of DNA typing and reference collections for the identification of rare species.
Rochelle Constantine said: ‘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.
‘We ran the samples a few times to make sure before we told everyone.’