Shedding new light on whale

Scientific detective work, led by University of Otago researchers, has sparked international media interest and shed new light on a mysterious pygmy whale species found only in the southern hemisphere.

This research has also effectively brought back from the dead a family of whale species previously thought to be long extinct.

''A careful analysis of New Zealand fossils led the researchers to determine that the `enigmatic' pygmy right whale is the last surviving species of a once diverse family of baleen whales known as cetotheres, which were thought to have become extinct around 2 million years ago,'' Otago University officials said in a statement.

One of the researchers, Otago geology doctoral student Felix Marx, is ''very chuffed'' with the outcome of the research on the pygmy right whale - Caperea.

The research formed part of his recently-completed PhD, undertaken through the Otago geology department.

The research has just been published through a paper, by award-winning Otago University geologist Prof Ewan Fordyce and Mr Marx, in the international scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

International media interest has included some high-profile television coverage in the United States.

Mr Marx said the latest research was new and involved some apparently ''outrageous'' ideas, given some previous views on the subject.

''It's good that people are interested . . . and they're looking at it'' and the new ideas were being taken ''seriously'', he said.

Pygmy whale bones found at Te Papa and the Otago Museum had helped researchers solve the puzzle, he said.

Prof Fordyce said the pygmy right whale was a small, about 6m-long, poorly-known, and highly distinctive southern whale. The species is known from strandings around the southern hemisphere, including New Zealand, but ''rarely seen alive''.

The whale ''relationships'' for Caperea have been problematic since it was first described by J.E. Gray in 1846. Many scientists had placed Caperea close to the large, slow-moving right whales, such as the southern right whales of New Zealand waters.

''We have now re-analysed the relationships of Caperea using skeletons of modern and fossil baleen whales, and genetic sequences of modern baleen whales.''

The Otago researchers concluded that the pygmy right whale was ''rather misnamed, because it is not close at all to the true right whales''. The researchers proposed that Caperea actually represented the last of a supposedly extinct group of baleen whales called the Cetotheriidae, he said.

- john.gibb@odt.co.nz

Brought to you by science

Grover, it was Mr Marx's research, academic rigour and scientific observation that led to these findings. The fact that the outcome is popular science is a good thing, surely.

Pygmy whale

The subtext is fascinating: Research papers get published only when released by famous authors. And, research is deemed successful only when TV channels abroad broadcast it.

The conclusion is that scientific research is actually about becoming famous . . .

More disturbing is the reality that in order to overturn a minor evolutionary 'fact', one needs to conscript an award-winning professor: There seems to be something wrong with what we call 'science'.