Shedding new light on whale

University of Otago doctoral researcher Felix Marx is thrilled with the outcome of research on...
University of Otago doctoral researcher Felix Marx is thrilled with the outcome of research on pygmy right whales. Photo supplied.
Pygmy right whale skull from Otago Museum.
Pygmy right whale skull from Otago Museum.
A pygmy right whale stranded at Golden Bay in 2002. Photo by Darryl Wilson.
A pygmy right whale stranded at Golden Bay in 2002. Photo by Darryl Wilson.

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

Add a Comment