Collecting the Spade-toothed whales

The Spade-toothed whale Mesoplodon traversii, is now known from 5 specimens, three of which are housed at Te Papa. With only one of these specimens a complete skeleton, the species is as rare as they come – even among beaked whales – the most elusive of all the world’s whales.

Whales are special taonga, particularly for coastal iwi and this relationship is acknowledged in both the way the Department of Conservation deals with whale strandings and the manner in which specimens are collected by Te Papa. Te Papa does not collect specimens without the agreement of the relevant iwi authority. With regard to the cow and calf pair of Spade-tooth whales reported on in the latest Current Biology article, Te Papa worked with the Department of Conservation and the Whakatohea Iwi Maori Trust Board. Ngai Tama Haua hapu hosted Te Papa staff and members of the iwi gave considerable help and time in the recovery of the specimens from the beach at Opape.

Anton van Helden Te Papa’s Marine Mammal Collection Manager with DOC staff and local iwi uncovering the adult female Spade-tooth whale skeleton. Copyright Te Papa

The value of a collaborative effort in collecting data and specimens goes back a long way with Te Papa (originally the Colonial Museum). From the earliest days of the museum the collection of data and specimens from marine mammals found on New Zealand’s coastline has been very important. Te Papa houses one of the largest and most significant collections of marine mammals in the world. An early collector for the Museum H. H. Travers, after who the species is named, collected a lower jaw with its two prominent tusk teeth from Pitt Island in the Chatham Islands in 1872. In 2002 the teeth of this specimen (the holotype of the species) had three tiny holes drilled into them yielding enough genetic material for the DNA to be analysed. This enabled us to confirm the species as distinct and unique. That the extraction of the DNA happened about 130 years after its collection helps us to see the value in housing these specimens in perpetuity in a museum.

Te Papa continues to collaborate with other research institutions to further the knowledge on the biodiversity of our country and its surrounding oceans. NZCeTA or New Zealand Cetacean Tissue Archive, is where the DNA from skin collected from stranded dead whales is archived at the University of Auckland. Whilst Te Papa has contributed to this over the years along with the Department of Conservation who deal with the strandings initially. So the tissue archive is supported by Te Papa’s archive of skeletons, preserved tissues, stranding data and images which support each other as a reference for the molecular and morphological comparison that underpins the determination of the species we have in our waters.

The skeletons have been cleaned here at Te Papa and it is the intention that they will join the holotype as part of Te Papa’s beaked whale collection.

It is an important aspect of our work that we involve the iwi in the ongoing relationship with their taonga that remain at Te Papa. In many instances this will involve the whales being given names by their iwi and that their story is archived along with the specimens so that their relationship is maintained in perpetuity.

Recently the Kaumatua from Whakatohea visited Te Papa and came and spent time with their whales. This was a very moving experience for me, but also was a way for the iwi to feel comfortable about where their taonga are resting and that they are being cared for appropriately. We are still working through the agreement around these whales to build a partnership that will grow our knowledge of these whales, the species and bring together the values of the museum and the iwi to enrich the stories that we can all share about these rare and remarkable animals.

Whakatohea Iwi visit Te Papa and their tohorä, copyright Matua Piki Amoamo photographer for Whakatohea Maori Trust Board

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