The Spade-toothed Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon traversii) is the world’s rarest whale, and has, until recently, been known only from findings of three skull fragments over the last 140 years. However, research published in the scientific journal Current Biology reveals that two whales found beached in New Zealand in 2010 were members of this most elusive of cetaceans.
When the beached mother and calf were found two years ago, they were misidentified as the much more common Gray’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon grayi), but DNA analysis on the skeletons has now revealed that the unfortunate pair were the first individuals of M.traversii to have ever been seen, albeit after death. The skeletons, along with photos taken of the beached whales in 2010, have enabled researchers to provide the first satisfactory description of this species.
Although beached dead cetaceans are always a sad find, it’s exciting to have real recent confirmation of the existence of this species, which some had suspected of being extinct. The immense South Pacific Ocean covers 14 per cent of the earth’s surface, and it is not so surprising that this whale, thought to live and feed in deep water, has not been encountered before. We must hope that its mysterious populations remain robust in the face of all the pressures on marine biodiversity, and can only wonder at what other species remain unencountered beneath the waves.