Despite the never-ending possibilities that science and nature have to offer, it’s still always surprising when firsts occur, especially when it doesn’t involve something that technology has given us. The world’s oceans are continually the source for new and interesting discoveries, as well as a good place to take a dip on a hot day. But chances are that swim wouldn’t have put you anywhere near a spade-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon traversii), because nobody had ever seen one before. And even after someone saw them, they still weren’t identified properly. And they weren’t even wearing a Groucho Marx mustache.
In December 2010, two of the beaked whales, a mother and her male calf, washed up on the shores of Opape Beach in Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, where they stayed stranded and died. The New Zealand Department of Conservation collected measurements and samples, collecting photographic evidence of everything as well. Unfortunately, they were initially wrongfully identified as the common Gray’s beaked whale. I’d judge them more harshly if my only reference point for a whale image wasn’t the rounded menace on the cover of the Great Illustrated Classics version of Moby Dick.
If not for an ongoing 20-year program collecting data on the 13 species of beaked whales swimming in New Zealand waters, they might have stayed misclassified. Rochelle Constantine, of the University of Aukland, says the specimens went to their lab for DNA analysis, and they were shocked by what they found. The only previously existing evidence of the spade-toothed beaked whale are three partial jaw bones, the first of which was found in 1872, and the third in 1986. The DNA sequencing and morphology comparisons from the 2010 samples matched those of the jaw bones. Said Constantine, “We ran the samples a few times to make sure before we told everyone.”
The full story can be found in the November 6 issue of Current Biology. Imagine spending your entire life trying to find, and then finding not just one, but two of them. Now imagine how much more of the unknown is lurking above the dark ocean floors. Now put those thoughts together and finish that Tales From the Darkside script you’ve been working on for 20 years.