Spade-toothed beaked whales (Mesoplodon traversii) are so rare that they had never been seen alive. Until recently, the only evidence of their existence were portions of three skulls found in 1872 and in the 1950s in New Zealand and in 1986 on an island off Chile. Then, on New Year’s Eve in 2010, two spade-toothed beaked whales, a mother and a calf, were found stranded on Opape Beach on the North Island where they died. Researchers took tissue samples but misidentified the whales as the more common Gray’s beaked whales. The researchers then buried the whales on the beach. Subsequently, the tissue samples were analysed and found to be from rare spade-toothed beaked whales. The skeletons of the buried whales have now been dug up, though the skull of the mother whale, which was not buried as deeply as the calf, is believed to have been washed away.
In a paper published Tuesday in the journal “Current Biology,” researchers from New Zealand and the United States say of their discovery: “For the first time we have a description of the world’s rarest and perhaps most enigmatic marine mammal.”
“This is pretty fantastic,” said Ewan Fordyce, a geology professor at the University of Otago who specializes in the evolution of whales and who was not involved in the research. “There would be few, if any, mammalian species in the world that would be rarer. And we know much more about panda bears and other iconic, rare animals.