World’s rarest whale revealed to the world.

Even in this well-informed age it’s surprising how much we still don’t know about the natural world – especially the oceans!   

All whales must come to the surface to breathe, despite this the Spade-tooth whale Mesoplodon traversii (Gray, 1874), an animal over 5m in length, has never been see alive, and until 31 December 2010 no one had even seen one with flesh on. Previously known from only two beach worn skulls (one from White Island and one from Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago off Chile) and the holotype, a lower jaw and two large tusk teeth housed here at Te Papa it really is the world’s rarest whale. You can see the holotype in this article on Tales from Te Papa on beaked whales.

The stranding of a cow and her calf at Opape beach in the Eastern Bay of Plenty is the first record anywhere in the world of an intact specimen. The few photos taken at the time the stranded animals were discovered have revealed the external appearance of the species.

Initially from the telephone description I identified these as the more commonly stranding Gray’s beaked whale. Superficially the species appear remarkably similar only some details in the colouration give us some clue.

The whales were buried and had it not been for the collection by DOC staff of a small sample of skin for DNA extraction at the University of Auckland the discovery may not have happened. MSc student Kirsten Thompson and her supervisor Rochelle Constantine rang me in the early hours of the morning to share the news of their analysis. Thankfully I was lying down!

After resurrecting the species in 2002, based on the skeletal remains, it remained a real dream to see what they actually looked like.

In our paper released today in Current Biology (a Cell Press Publication), the digital painting based on the photos of the adult female has been published for the world to see. [ Current Biology, 6 November, 2012 Volume 22, Issue 21]

Image depicting the head of an adult female spade-toothed whale Mesoplodon traversii, copyright Anton van Helden (illustrator)

In January of this year with the agreement and help of Whakatohea Maori Trust Board and Ngai Tama Haua hapu, Te Papa was able to recover the skeletons of the stranded pair. Sadly the head of the adult female had washed away through beach erosion. But we now have collected the only complete specimen in the world of this rarest of whales. Te Papa is working with Whakatohea to develop an agreement around the management of these remarkable taonga for the benefit of all to learn more about this species and its significance.

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