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Odyssey chief scientist, Dr. Peter Teglberg Madsen, examines the skeletal remains of the Longman's Beaked Whale housed in the Maldives Marine Research Centre.
Photo: Chris Johnson

February 23, 2003
One of the World's Least Known Whales - Longman's Beaked Whale
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Maldives.

There is a particular family of whales known as beaked whales (Ziphiidae) that are among the least known large mammals on earth. Comprising a diverse collection of roughly twenty species of deep diving toothed whales, some may be genuinely rare, while others may simply elude us. The majority of information gathered about these mysterious whales has been collected from stranded specimens or skeletal remains. There is little data on the living animal of most species of Ziphiids - some have never been seen alive.

We were invited today to view and photograph the skeletal remains of a beaked whale that was found on January 17, 2000 near Keyodhoo Atoll in the north of the archipelago. A group of fisherman found the whale carcass drifting close to shore and towed it to a nearby island. Fortunately, a team from the Marine Research Center (MRC) were present and able to identify the animal as a beaked whale, however, they did not recognize the species. The Ministry of Fisheries, Agriculture and Marine Resources decided that the whale should be buried. Local fishermen were asked to remove the flesh so the remains would decay faster. During the flensing process, a foetus was discovered inside the whale. Tissue from both the mother and foetus were collected and sent abroad for DNA analysis.

The Longman's beaked whale stranded on January 17, 2000 near Keyodhoo Atoll in the north of the Maldive archipelago.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Dr. Merel Dalebout from the school of Biological Sciences in Auckland, New Zealand is currentlylooking at the molecular systematic relationships and species diversity in beaked whales. Dr. Dalebout conducted the analysis on the specimens and confirmed that the whale was indeed of the genus Mesoplodon, it was a Longman's beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus).

This was the first complete specimen of a Longman's beaked whale found anywhere in the world. Previously, no one knew what this whale looked like and the only drawings available were artistic impressions based on guesswork and assumption.The first evidence of the existence of this whale came from a skull found washed up on a beach in northeastern Australia in 1882. It was not until 44 years later in 1926 that the skull was re-examined by a man named 'Longman'. He recognized it as a new species. Until recently, this whale was only known to science from two damaged and weathered skulls and the skeletal remnants of young animals collected in Australia, Somalia and South Africa. The most exciting findings appear to be the most recent. The discovery of this specimen in the Maldives together with a recent stranding off the southern coast of Japan in July 2002 has revealed exciting new information. However, this remains one of the whale species yet to be seen alive at sea.

Scientists at the Kagoshima City Aquarium identified the whale in Japan as a 21-foot long, female Longman's beaked whale. This animal was described as resembling an elongated dolphin; it was tan and gray in color, with a long beak-shaped mouth.

The remains of the Maldives specimen are currently housed at the Marine Research Center in Male. The crew arrived early in the morning. There is always excitement and anticipation whenever we have the opportunity (always rare) to learn more about these animals. Research Assistant, Shahaama Abdul Sattar, took the crew outside to view the skeleton. The museum personnel had taken the bones, skull and teeth out of storage and laid them out on the ground for us to examine and photograph. We were absolutely stunned by what was in front of us - the complete skeletal remains of an adult specimen of what is one of the least known whales in the world, the Longman's beaked whale.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this finding is the presence of two oval, forward pointing teeth. Males of most beaked whales have 2 or 4 teeth in the lower jaw and none in the upper jaw, the majority of females are without teeth. Yet this animal was without doubt, a female. The shape and position of the teeth are often crucial in making a positive identification.

We could hardly believe it! Almost everything about this whale remains a total mystery, including how many exist, where they live, how they feed, how they communicate, and that is only the beginning. Every finding adds another piece to the puzzle of distribution, life history and anatomy.

The skeletal remains of the Longman's beaked whale.
Photo: Courtesy of the Maldives Marine Research Centre

How marvellous that such a large animal is able to exist almost entirely outside of the realm and reach of man. Can you imagine knowing that a four tonne animal the size of an elephant exists on the African savannahs because we have seen its bones, yet no one has ever seen one alive? Such a comparison helps demonstrate the sheer scale of this mystery to marine science, the Longman's is the 'holy grail' of whales.

There is probably at least one other unidentified whale of this genus, known only as Mesoplodon species 'A'. This whale also remains completely elusive and unknown to science apart from several sightings at sea. It does not match the description of any known whale and due to the lack of a specimen to examine, is yet to be classified.

It is healthy to be reminded now and then that, for the time being anyway, Nature is still able to retain some rather large secrets, and to do so, apparently, effortlessly.


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