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Environment & Science

World's rarest whale identified by New Zealand scientists

A rare female Spade-Toothed Beaked Whale lays dead on Opape Beach, N.Z., on Dec. 31. 2010.
A rare female Spade-Toothed Beaked Whale lays dead on Opape Beach, N.Z., on Dec. 31. 2010.
New Zealand Department of Conservation

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The rarest whale in the world, the spade toothed beaked whale, has never been seen alive. However, today in the science journal “Current Biology,” DNA test results are published that reveal two carcasses found in 2010 on a beach in New Zealand were the carcasses of this very whale.

Previous to this discovery, there had only been three times in the past 140 years that evidence of this whale’s existence had been found. All three of those findings were skull fragments. The first was found in 1872 in New Zealand, the second in the 1950s in New Zealand, and the third in 1986 on the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. 

This latest discovery was in 2010 was on Opape Beach in New Zealand, where a conservation team mistakenly identified the beached 17-foot female body and the 11-foot male calf body as the more common gray’s beaked whale. The team took a sample of tissue and then buried the whales. It wasn’t until months later at the University of Auckland when DNA testing revealed that these carcasses were actually the rarest whale breed in the world, the spade toothed beaked whale. 

Pat Krug, marine biologist at Cal State LA says that it, “Is difficult to know what you could attribute this stranding to, it is amazing that this species could go undetected by humans for centuries because of our history of whaling … no whalers ever caught this species. Its remains never turned up anywhere. It is very elusive.”

The elusive nature of this whale means that scientists know very little about it. Males have broad, blade-like tusks and both males and females have dolphin-like beaks. It is presumed that it eats squid, and can dive into the depths of the ocean for 87 minutes at a time. Krug says this is due to, “Incredible adaptations even down to the way the individual proteins fold.”

The skeletons of these whales could be used to discover even more about them, and finding out more about these whales will help uncover a few more of the many secrets of the ocean. The significance of this discovery, according to Krug, is that, “It highlights the fact that we really still don’t know anything about our oceans. You can imagine how many small mammals we might have missed if there are whole whales that we had never seen alive.”