AUCKLAND, New Zealand — A newly identified species of beaked whale lives more than 6,000 feet beneath the waves. Scientists say the giant of the deep rarely comes up for air as it would be eaten by orcas. Its existence confirms our minute knowledge of the oceans and the life within them.
The bizarre creature is more than 17 feet long and weighs over a ton. It has a stout body, a small sloping head, and a short beak. There is a prominent tusk in each lower jaw that points upwards past the upper jaw. Named after Ramari Stewart, a Māori whale expert, “Ramari’s beaked whale” is a major addition to the world’s giant mammals.
The serendipitous discovery was made after the remains of a pregnant female washed up on the west coast of New Zealand’s South island. Initially, it was believed to be the first True’s beaked whale found in the country — an elusive type that is rarely seen by humans. But an international team of experts soon realized the genetics and skull shape were different.
Mystery of beaked whales
Ramari’s is believed to have evolved around 500,000 years ago, preferring cooler waters than those around the equator.
Beaked whales — named after their pointy, dolphin-like snouts — live mostly in remote water. The species “are among the most visible inhabitants of the deep sea, due to their large size and worldwide distribution, and their taxonomic diversity and much about their natural history remain poorly understood,” the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, explains.
Scientists believe as many as 1.5 million species await discovery. Ramari’s beaked whale demonstrates the fact that the oceans remain largely unexplored. “The Earth’s deep ocean remains less understood than the surface of Mars,” the authors write. “The deep sea has been described as the last major ecological frontier, as much of its biodiversity is yet to be discovered and described.”
The whale is probably common throughout temperate waters in the Southern Hemisphere.
The carcass was found by Māoris from the local Makaawhio tribe about a decade ago. They called her “Nihongore” and sent the bones to Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington for preservation. “When Nihongore turned up I knew that she was something different. I knew it was special because I had not seen it before,” Stewart says in a statement.
Ramari’s is the first whale to be named after a woman. It will be scientifically known as Mesoplodon eueu, referring to its indigenous roots in South Africa.
Beaked whales’ favorite food is squid. They suck the creatures into their mouths. In pursuing them, they have been documented diving down to almost 10,000 feet. When they surface they spend about two minutes before diving again, meaning it is very difficult to observe and tag them.
An appropriate discovery for Ramari Stewart
Ms. Stewart has spent her life studying whales. She was raised by her elders in the traditional Māori way, which includes learning about the sea.
“Ramari brought extensive knowledge to the project, including leading work preparing ‘Nihongore’ for Te Papa. It is brilliant that Ramari accepted the honor of having this species named after her, in recognition of her knowledge of whales and dolphins. As ‘Ramari’ also means a rare event in Te Reo (Māori language) it is also a fitting tribute to the elusive nature of most beaked whales,” says study co-author Dr. Emma Carroll, of the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, in a statement per South West News Service.
The animals communicate via echolocation clicks above the frequency of human hearing. They feed at depths of 3,000 feet to avoid orcas and surface only occasionally, making them hard to spot.
“It is wonderful that Western science is starting to recognize that Maori knowledge is as equally great and the two can work together. Rather than just bridging a relationship and taking knowledge from indigenous practitioners, it is better that we both sit at the table,” adds Ms. Stewart.
Ramari’s brings the total number of beaked whale species to 24. The group includes the deepest diving mammals. They plunge hundreds or thousands of meters to find prey and face threats from entanglement in fishing gear, commercial whaling, marine debris ingestion, and human-caused noise. Like all marine mammals, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Ramari’s will spend most of its time offshore in deep waters. A few male specimens have since been found in South Africa. The scientific name Mesoplodon eueu means “big fish” in the indigenous tribes’ language.
“Describing a new species requires important decisions around the naming of the new taxon. We sought to recognize indigenous peoples’ deep connection with, and knowledge of, the natural environment by consulting with them on potential species and common names,” the study says. “This is part of a critical shift in the global science community, which strives to integrate indigenous knowledge into ecology and conservation biology. Here, this has resulted in one of the first cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) named after an indigenous woman.”
The study involved 30 scientists from around the world, including Ireland.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.