Rare Species Of Deep-Diving Whale Discovered

Lisa Thompson

In 1963 a mysterious whale washed up on the beaches in Sri Lanka. Since then, six other individuals have been found in a similar manner with the latest sighting in 2009 on the shore of Desroches Island in the Seychelles. This rare whale has been formally described by lead researcher Merel Dalebout and has been published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

The whale is about 4.5 meters (14.7 feet) long and marks the twenty second confirmed species of beaked whale. Though beaked whales can be found in ocean waters all over the world, there is not a lot that is actually known about them. They are deep divers and can stay underwater for around an hour, which makes them fairly elusive to researchers.

When the first specimen was discovered 50 years ago, marine biologist P.E.P (Paulus) Deraniyagala named it Mesoplodon hotaula, which translates to “pointed beak.” The next individual was found on a shore two years later. However, those researchers believed that the whale, as well as the previous one, were not a new species at all. The teeth are shaped kind of like the leaves of a ginkgo tree, so the team deduced that both specimens were actually members of M. ginkgodens

When the most recent individual washed ashore, the scientists were able to use a tool that their predecessors could not: genetic analysis. They were able to obtain a complete  genetic sample. The older specimens did not have any preserved tissue to sample, so the team drilled into their bones and analyzed the fragments. 

As it turns out, Deraniyagala was right in his initial conclusion in 1963 and it was a previously unknown species. The genome was compared against six speciments of M. ginkgodens to ensure that there would not be any further case of mistaken identity. The name bestowed by Deraniyagala was restored and the whales are once again known as M. hotaula.

Because beaked whales are so rarely seen, there is not much information about their conservation. They seem to be fairly safe from human interaction, though analysis of blubber shows a progressive increase of toxins.

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