You won’t find much information on the spade-toothed whale on Wikipedia, nor even in scientific documents. There is simply very little known about this species of beaked whale, since there have really only been a handful of sightings and DNA material available for study.

Many findings have occurred decades apart. Most recently, in 2010, two spade-toothed whales were found beached in northern New Zealand. Originally, scientists identified them as Gray’s beaked whales, but a two-year genetic analysis found that the two whales were in fact spade-toothed whales. The findings were published in the November 6 issue of Current Biology.

Scientists only had about four pieces of evidence to rely on to identify the whale. In 1872, the first known specimen was found on Pitt Island in New Zealand, but it was only a partial jaw and it was not classified as the spade-toothed whale, but a strap-toothed whale. Then, the top part of a skull was found in 1950 also in New Zealand. That was also not attributed to a spade-toothed whale, but rather a ginkgo-toothed beaked whale. In 1986, a damaged calvaria (top part of a skull) was found on Robinson Crusoe Island in Chile and associated with the rare whales. The four findings have since been shown to come from the same species according to DNA findings.

When the two whales first washed up on shore, scientists mistook it to be a Gray’s beaked whale (pictured above).

A complete, albeit dead mother and calf found on Opape Beach in 2010 marks the first time the whales have been found whole. The mother measured five meters (16 feet) in length.

Lead scientist Rochelle Constantine, of the group of University of Auckland scientists that conducted the tests on the whales, said this discovery proves just how little scientists know about ocean biodiversity, according to Australian News. Scientists are unsure as to its conservation status since so few have been spotted. They are so rare because they are believed to live in deep water, an argument as to why human encounters are so rare.

Scientific American blog writer Becky Crew wrote their aquatic abilities may be part of the reason they are so rarely spotted. “Not only are beaked whales of the family Ziphiidae rare, their ability to dive down to exceptionally deep areas of the ocean in search of squid and other deep-sea fish means they are also very elusive. They can reportedly dive to more than 800m below the surface and dives can last up to 87 minutes.”

Images courtesy of New Zealand Department of Conservation and New Zealand Government

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