Rare whale found for first time in New Zealand

Spade-toothed beaked whale illustration from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa's website.

Spade-toothed beaked whale illustration from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa's website.

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:17 PM ET

When marine biologist Anton van Helden got the call that two dead whales he'd thought were part of a common species were actually members of a never-before-seen species, he was shocked.

"Thankfully I was lying down!" he wrote in a blog post at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

He'd thought the corpses were Gray's beaked whales. Everyone did. That's what they looked like.

But in a study published Tuesday, scientists reveal they were actually spade-toothed beaked whales, a species so rare, they've never been seen.

The only other evidence of their existence is a jaw bone with teeth found in the Chatham Islands southeast of New Zealand in 1872 and a skull discovered on Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile in 1986.

Two of the creatures washed up on Opape Beach on the east coast of New Zealand in October 2010 — a five-metre long female and a 3.5-metre calf.

Conservationists snapped pictures and took tissue samples before burying the bodies in the sand.

But when they did DNA testing, they soon learned they'd buried a landmark discovery.

"Surprisingly, a comparison with sequences from the holotype and the other two reference specimens revealed that both whales were not Gray's beaked whales, but rather the previously unseen spade-toothed whale," the study in Current Biology reads. "Based on its scarcity, only two intact animals having been seen in the last 140 years, the spade-toothed whale is the world's rarest whale."

The study credits the discovery to "rapid advances in DNA technology."

"For the first time we have a description of the world's rarest and perhaps most enigmatic marine mammal," the study reads.

Once they'd identified the rare mammals, conservation workers dug up their skeletal remains and sent them to the museum for safekeeping and further analysis.


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