“New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us.”

That’s marine biologist Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland. And while much of the unknown marine life may be small organisms such as sponges and small fish, Constantine is talking about a very rare whale.

The spade-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon traversii), was never seen before. The species was only known by three partial skulls collected from New Zealand and Chile over a 140-year period.

Then, two years ago, a stranded mother and her male calf died on a New Zealand beach. The New Zealand Department of Conservation photographed the animals and collected measurements and tissue samples.

The whales were initially identified as much more common Gray’s beaked whales. But then the scientists conducted routine DNA analysis. “When these specimens came to our lab, we extracted the DNA as we usually do for samples like these, and we were very surprised to find that they were spade-toothed beaked whales,” Constantine says. “We ran the samples a few times to make sure before we told everyone.”

Their findings were published earlier this month in Current Biology.

The discovery serves as a reminder of just how little we still know about life in the ocean, the authors say. They are still unsure why the whales are so elusive. “It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore,” Constantine says.

Image: New Zealand Government

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