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Previously unseen whale species washes up on New Zealand beach

November 05, 2012|By Jon Bardin
  • When two rare spade-toothed whales washed up on a New Zealand shore, they were mistaken for the more common Gray's beaked whales.
When two rare spade-toothed whales washed up on a New Zealand shore, they… (New Zealand Government )

Not one but two specimens of the world’s rarest known species of whale have been discovered on a New Zealand beach, according to a report published Monday in the journal Current Biology. The species, called the spade-toothed beaked whale, is so rare that before the find researchers weren't even sure if it still existed.

The two whales washed up on Opape Beach in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. At first scientists thought they were examples of a much more pedestrian species, the Gray’s beaked whales, which are the most commonly beached whales in the region. But after undertaking a DNA analysis — standard procedure for beached whales that die on shore — the researchers were shocked to find that the whales were spade-toothed beaked whales, a species with no known sightings that was previously known only from three partial skulls.

Samples from those skulls enabled the researchers to identify the species; the team ran the analysis several times to ensure the results were correct. The authors of the report, who are researchers at the University of Auckland, believe that the whale may be so rare because it spends much of its life in extremely deep waters — a hallmark of the South Pacific.

As a result, they may also die in the deep, making it unlikely that they will wash ashore. The researchers do not know why these two particular whales washed onto the beach.

The discovery is a triumph of modern DNA analysis and reveals the importance of having comprehensive reference libraries of animal DNA so that physically similar species can be definitively differentiated.

You can read a summary of the study here.

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