Nearly two years ago, on New Year’s Eve two whales washed up on the shore of New Zealand and died. Government conservation workers identified them as Gray’s beaked whales, which commonly wash ashore, took skin samples, buried them, and left them alone—completely unaware that they’d actually been handling two of the world’s most mysterious mammals.
When researchers from the University of Auckland sequenced DNA from the samples a few months later, they found something much more exciting than expected. The specimens were the first evidence found since 1986 of the spade-toothed beaked whale.
The beached male spade-toothed beaked whale before burial. (Photo by the New Zealand Department of Conservation via Current Biology)
The only previously existing evidence of the species were bone fragments, including a mandible found in 1872 and two skulls found in the 1950s and in 1986 washed up on islands. The two carcasses are the first whole specimens of the species to have been found. They were described recently in a paper in Current Biology. The whales were a female and a smaller male. The female was over 17 feet long.
“She’s an enormous animal, really,” said Rochelle Constantine, an author of the paper and a biologist at the University of Auckland, in an interview with PRI’s The World. “You’d like to think she’s something you would have noticed.”
Rochelle says the whales are very rare, very elusive, or both. Beaked whales spend much of their time in deep ocean water feeding on squid and small fish and rarely surface. “It may well be that they’re so far from shore they live and die in the deep ocean water,” Rochelle told The World.
All that remains now of the whales are some photos taken before they were buried and their skeletal remains, which have been exhumed from the beach for further study.
The two specimens offer paradoxical assurance that other representatives of the spade-toothed beaked whale species are still swimming the ocean, probably far from the coast and human eyes.