Two years after they washed up on a New Zealand beach, scientists have identified two whale carcasses as members of what they believe is the world’s rarest whale species: the spade-toothed beaked whale.
Host Aaron Schachter speaks with one of the lead researchers on the project, marine biologist Rochelle Constantine.
(Hear the on-air version of the interview above, and the complete interview below.)
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Aaron Schachter: All the world’s eyes may be on Ohio today where election returns could decide who will be the next president of the United States. All eyes that is except perhaps those of a few thousand Cetologists, who may instead by consumed by today’s issue of the journal, Current Biology. Cetologists are people who study whales, and in the world of whale science the news today is big. The story comes from New Zealand where scientists for the first time have identified remains of what they say is the world’s rarest whale. It is so rare in fact, that so far as we know no one has every seen one alive. Rochelle Constantine is a lecturer in biology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She was part of the team of scientists who identified two whale carcasses that washed up on a beach two years ago and, Dr. Constant, you have found the Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster of whales.
Rochelle Constantine: Well I guess so, it was quite a surprise for us. I guess the first specimen being found way back in 1872 off New Zealand and then one again in 1950, and then the most recent one in 1996 off Chile, all of those were just skull fragments, so they weren’t
Schachter: Tell me what they were, what were they called?
Constantine: The whale is called the spade-toothed beaked whale, and so it’s one of a group of 21 beaked whales. And it’s not unusual for New Zealand to have beaked whales, but it was certainly unusual to find the two first the whole specimens of this particular species.
Schachter: It must’ve been a little frustrating for you though because people didn’t know what it was when the whales first washed up on shore and they just buried the carcasses.
Constantine: No, that’s right, I mean it’s standard protocols to bury the carcasses. You know, they are a public health issue. You know, at the time they didn’t know what they had, so you know, there was no ill-will
Constantine: in doing what they did. But not all is lost and it’s good that we were able to get the carcasses back.
Schachter: You know, if we don’t know all that much about the spade-toothed beaked whale, how do you know it’s the rarest whale in the world? Maybe it’s just the shyest whale in the world.
Constantine: Well that’s very possible. I think you know, that title was suggested I think because this is the whale in the world we know the least about.
Schachter: Well, I wonder if you think there might be other whales out there that no one has every seen at all, even as a carcass or just a bunch of bone.
Constantine: No reason why not. One of the things that always amazes me is how little we know about the ocean. We have massive ocean, our planet is mostly ocean and yet we have so little knowledge about what’s out there. I mean this animal, this female, she was 5.3 meters long. She’s an enormous animal really. You know, there’s something you’d like you will have noticed.
Schachter: Rochelle Constantine is a lecturer in biology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She was a member of the team that identified the remains of two members of the world’s rarest whale species, the spade-toothed beaked whale. Doctor, thank you.
Constantine: You’re very welcome, thanks for your interest.
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In our complete interview about the discovery of two extremely rare spade-toothed beaked whale carcasses, marine biologist Rochelle Constantine tells host Aaron Schachter about the challenges of identifying the animals and explores the reasons none may have ever been seen alive.