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Our Undiscovered Earth

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 12, 2012

Out of its depths

I’m still playing catch up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (no damage but no power at home), and a reporting trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  This item by Michael McCarthy in The Independent caught my eye, about finding a whale no one had ever seen before, and what that suggests about how much we still need to learn about life on Earth:

We all know the baleen whales, which have baleen plates, or giant filters in their mouths to trap plankton, because these 15 or so species include the world’s biggest animals, such as the blue whale and the humpback, and around British coasts, the minke whale. And we all know the toothed whales, because this group of 50-plus species includes all the dolphins and porpoises, and other very familiar creatures such as the sperm whale – Moby Dick in Melville’s epic – and the orca or killer whale, and the white whale, the beluga.

But the beaked whales are largely a mystery, to zoologists as well as to general wildlife enthusiasts. Cuvier’s beaked whale, Gervais’ beaked whale, Blainville’s beaked whale, Sowerby’s beaked whale – ever heard of any of them? Top of the class if you have. This group of about 20 species is undoubtedly the least-known of all marine mammals, and very likely the least known large mammals on earth, because they spend much of their time at tremendous depths in the ocean, feeding on squid, and are rarely encountered on the surface.

I have always been fascinated by them, so I was even more fascinated to learn that the rarest of them all has just been seen and described for the first time. This is the spade-toothed whale, Mesoplodon traversii, known for more than a century only from a partial jawbone found in New Zealand, and two subsequent skulls. But two years ago, a cow and a calf were stranded in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. They were originally identified as examples of Gray’s beaked whale; yet subsequent DNA analysis showed that mother and infant were indeed spade-toothed whales, the first complete specimens ever seen. (The finding is reported in the latest edition of the journal Current Biology.)

This is a discovery up there with the finding of the okapi in Central Africa in 1901, or with the discovery of the saola, or Vu Quang ox, in Vietnam in 1992. Those two large, hitherto unknown beasts came from the world’s deepest and most impenetrable jungles. But the deep ocean is infinitely larger than the rainforest, and even more impenetrable, who knows but there may still be great beasts left to discover?

Here’s to the spade-toothed whale. It is heartening to realise that even now, when much of the earth can be mapped on your mobile phone, some of the mystery still remains.

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