New Zealand rare whale discovery

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 (pictured here), photo: New Zealand Government

From the Daily Telegraph in Britain:

World’s rarest whale seen for first time

The world’s rarest whale has been seen for the first time after a mother and calf were washed up on a beach in New Zealand.

By Nick Collins, Science Correspondent

5:00PM GMT 05 Nov 2012

Spade-toothed beaked whales were first discovered in 1872 when bone fragments were found on a remote Pacific island, but until now the species has remained entirely hidden from human view.

In the 140 years since they were first discovered, the only sign that the creatures’ continued existence lay in two partial skulls found in New Zealand in the 1950s and Chile in 1986.

Now scientists have reported a complete description of the whales, which are thought to spend most of their lives in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, only rarely coming to the surface.

The mother and her male calf were stranded on Opape Beach at the northern tip of New Zealand in December 2010 but were initially thought to be of a much more common species known as Gray’s beaked whales.

It was only after routine DNA analysis that experts realised their true identity.

Dr Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland said: “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.

“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.”

Because the animals had never been seen very little is known about their behaviour, but writing in the Current Biology journal, the researchers suggested they were likely to be “exceptionally deep divers, foraging for squid and small fish and spending little time at the surface.”

Dr Constantine said it was unclear why the species has been so elusive, but added: “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.”

See also here. And here. And here.

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