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article imageRarest whale seen for first time ever, but not in the sea

By Abigail Prendergast     Nov 5, 2012 in Environment
The spade-toothed beaked whale is a marine mammal that has eluded the witness of mankind in the vast, deep waters of the ocean for all of its history. But with the discovery of not one, but two full bodies of these animals more about them will be known.
Scientists have recently gotten more of a look into its ever-expanding knowledge of the natural world via the discovery of the rare Mesoplodon traversii - the spade-toothed beaked whale.
According to Scientific American, the finding was simultaneously great, yet unfortunate as the mother whale and her calf were found dead on the shore upon being witnessed by researchers.
Up until this point, the spade-toothed beaked whale had only been seen by humans in the form of three partial skulls found in New Zealand and Chile in 1872, 1950 and 1986, and this is the first chance scientists have to study their entire bodies, SA reports. The beached whales were at first, mistakenly thought to be M. grayi or Gray's beaked whales, which in fact look very much like the spade-toothed variety. DNA analysis revealed their real identity says The Telegraph.
The mother and son spade-toothed whales were first discovered on New Zealand's Opape Beach in December 2010 and died soon afterward.
After photographing and measuring the marine mammals, the DOC (New Zealand Department of Conservation) concluded that the mother whale was 5.3 meters long, while her calf was 3.5 meters in length. The Department also collected tissue samples which resulted in the aforementioned correction of what species of whale they had.
For 20 years, the DOC had routinely tested DNA from beaked whales that had washed ashore and there are at least a dozen species of these cetaceans that can be found around New Zealand.
“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 Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland. “We ran the samples a few times to make sure before we told everyone.”
Very few facts are, in fact, known about the 21 species of beaked whales that swim the oceans around the world Rochelle and her team wrote in their papers published in journal, Current Biology. The water mammals are perceived to be "exceptionally deep divers, foraging for squid and small fish and spending little time at the surface."
Most species of beaked whale look so similar to each other externally, that scientists have only been able to determine just what kind they were by examining the teeth of older males. But that could not be done with either females or calves. While they can vary in color, the whales' skin decays quickly after death, making it difficult for researchers to identify them by such means.
Finding a major melon - which is an organ behind the forehead believed to play a part in the process of echolocation - "a dark gray or black rostrum, a dark eye patch, a white belly and dark flippers," scientists were able to publish distinguishing features setting the Mesoplodon traversii apart from other beaked whales.
Despite the historical significance of this discovery, there are still many questions Constantine and her crew are asking, included but not limited to why it is rarely ever seen.
“It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore,” she speculated. “New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us.”
More about spade toothed beaked whale, Discovery, Research, New Zealand
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