"Weird" Pygmy Whale Dissected

Dave Hansford in Wellington, New Zealand
for National Geographic News
May 7, 2008

A young pygmy right whale that stranded itself in New Zealand has given scientists a rare chance to study the little-known species.

The 7.5-foot-long (2.31-meters-long) specimen, probably a six-month-old male, was found dead at Spirit's Bay in the country's far north. (See a New Zealand map.)

Pygmy right whales, the world's smallest baleen whales, can reach lengths of up to 21 feet (6.5 meters), said Anton van Helden, a marine mammal scientist at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Paleontologists and anatomists from New Zealand, Australia, and the United States met at Te Papa to begin dissecting the whale—only the second ever examined—on Tuesday.

Updates posted today on the museum's blog suggest that the young animal carried scars from tiny cookie-cutter sharks.

The team was also surprised to find that the whale had hair on its body. Most whales lose their hair within a few weeks of birth, the blog posting said.

The scientists will pay careful attention to the animal's skeleton and larynx, which they believe may offer clues to its evolution.

(See photos from the first in-depth look of a colossal squid examined at the same museum.)

Misnamed

Pygmy right whales were first identified as a species from a piece of baleen in 1846.

The animals seem to inhabit the Southern Hemisphere, and most sightings and strandings occur in Australia and New Zealand.

A few individuals were taken by whalers in the 1960s and 1970s, according to team member Catherine Kemper, curator of mammals at the South Australian Museum.

Continued on Next Page >>


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