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
''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
''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
''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.