World's Rarest Whale Seen for First Time

A whale species that is nearly unknown to science has been seen for the first time after a mother and her calf were stranded on a New Zealand beach.

The discovery of two spade-toothed beaked whales is the first evidence that this species is still alive. The findings also highlight the importance of DNA typing and reference collections for the identification of rare species.

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 not initially identified as spade-toothed beaked whales, but as much more common Gray's beaked whales. Their true identity came to light only after 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.

"This is the first time this species 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 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."

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