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The spade-toothed beaked whale is so rare that nobody has seen one alive, but scientists have proof the species still exists.
Two skeletons were identified as belonging to the species after a 5.2-meter whale and her calf beached themselves in New Zealand in 2010. Scientists hope the discovery will provide insights into both the species and ocean ecosystems.
It was almost a missed opportunity, however, since conservationists misidentified the carcasses as a much more common type of whale and buried them.
In a paper published on Tuesday in the journal Current Biology, researchers from New Zealand and the United States said of their discovery: "For the first time we have a description of the world's rarest and perhaps most enigmatic marine mammal."
Previously only three skull fragments of the species had been found - in New Zealand in 1872 and the 1950s, and the last one 26 years ago on an island off Chile. The males have broad, blade-like, tusk teeth that give the species its name. Both males and females have beaks that make them resemble dolphins.
"This is pretty fantastic," said Ewan Fordyce, a geology professor at the University of Otago who specializes in the evolution of whales but who was not involved in the research. "There would be few, if any, mammalian species in the world that would be rarer. And we know much more about panda bears and other iconic, rare animals."
The beached whales, an adult and her 3.4-meter male calf, were discovered on Opape Beach on the North Island on New Year's Eve in 2010.
Conservation workers thought they were Gray's beaked whales and took tissue samples before burying them about 2.7 meters under the sand.
Those samples ended up at the University of Auckland, where scientists did routine tests about six months later. Rochelle Constantine, a co-author of the paper, said she and colleague Kirsten Thompson could not believe it when the results showed the pair to be the rarest of whales.
"Kirsten and I went quiet. We were pretty stunned," she said.
Further tests confirmed the discovery. Constantine said they retested 160 samples taken from other stranded Gray's whales, but did not find any more that had been misidentified.
This year, researchers returned to the beach to exhume the skeletons.
Anton van Helden, who manages the marine mammals collection for New Zealand's national museum Te Papa, said finding the remains after so long was not a straightforward task, and the mother's skull had washed out to sea.
"It's a hugely significant find," said van Helden, a co-author of the paper. He said it is impossible to know why the whales came ashore, although whales often beach themselves when they become ill. He said almost nothing is known about the species, except they live in the South Pacific Ocean and eat primarily squid.
The scientists said the discovery could provide broader insights into the ocean's complex ecosystems.
"This is good reminder," said Constantine, "of how large the oceans are, and of how little we know about them".
The Associated Press
(China Daily 11/07/2012 page10)