World’s rarest whale seen for the first time

November 6, 2012 • 5:00 pm

I’ve gotten this from several readers, so thanks to all. According to The Province and several other sources, a defunct spade-toothed beaked whale and her calf (Mesoplodon traversii) washed up on the shores of New Zealand in 2010 and have just been identified as the world’s rarest whale in a new paper in Current Biology (full disclosure: I’m in Mexico and haven’t read the paper. The link is below but you’ll get only the abstract for free.)

Apparently the species was originally described from just a few skull and jaw fragments, but a fleshed-out specimen had never been seen until the pair washed ashore in 2010. Those individuals, however, were misidentified as Gray’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi), and buried. But DNA testing on saved tissue specimens now confirms that the carcasses were indeed those of the spade-toothed beaked whale, since the unearthed skeletal remains are similar to the species described previously and the DNA is quite different from that of Gray’s beaked whale.

The beached whales, an adult and her three-metre male calf, were discovered on Opape Beach on the North Island on New Year’s Eve in 2010. Conservation workers thought they were Gray’s beaked whales and took tissue samples before burying them about nine feet under the sand.

Those samples ended up at the University of Auckland, where scientists did routine tests about six months later. Rochelle Constantine, a co-author of the paper, said she and her colleague Kirsten Thompson couldn’t believe it when the results showed the pair to be the rarest of whales.

“Kirsten and I went quiet. We were pretty stunned,” she said.

Further tests confirmed the discovery. Constantine said they then retested about 160 samples taken from other stranded Gray’s whales but didn’t find any more that had been misidentified.

This year, researchers returned to the beach to exhume the skeletons

Until I see the paper, I won’t know how different the DNA is from the congeneric species, and whether that difference supports species status. I assume, however, that we have DNA from several Gray’s beaked whales, and the DNA of the new whale is quite different from those.

Here’s the mother photographed in 2010; note the snout that resembles the “beak” of a porpoise:

Needless to say, nothing is know of its behavior, and, as Wikipedia says dryly, it is “unlikely to be abundant.”


Thompson, K., C. S. Baker, A. van Helden, S. Patel, C. Millar, and R. Constantine. 2012: The world’s rarest whaleCurrent Biology, 22: R905–R906. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.055

5 thoughts on “World’s rarest whale seen for the first time

  1. I can’t find any good estimates of the population of Gray’s beaked whales because they are apparently a deep water species, not terribly big, and frequent waters without a lot of ship traffic. It’s really only known from strandings, not any study of live animals in the wild. If this whale species has similar habits it’s going to be difficult to learn much. I find it fascinating that we can have some pretty big animals living in our oceans and yet know so little about them, we just don’t know enough about our oceans (while at the same time damaging them in ways we can’t even come close to predicting the long term effects).

  2. Great piece. And the headline reminds me of the ontological argument: Wouldn’t a whale that doesn’t actually exist be the rarest whale of all? In that case, this existing whale can’t be the rarest one.

  3. I’m very sad to say I snickered when I read the title, and then saw the specimen was dead. I mean, wouldn’t it be ironic if this was the last one of it’s kind? But that’s me being morbid. Good Post.

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