A recently re-discovered species of beaked whale has never been seen alive. Biologists described the mysterious new species, Mesoplodon hotaula, using seven corpses that washed up on tropical islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans over the past half century.

The first finding of Mesoplodon hotaula came in 1963 when a 4.5 meter-long (15-foot) female washed up on the beach of Sri Lanka. Originally, the animal was described as a new species, but taxonomists later argued that the animal belonged to an already known variety, the ginko-toothed whale (Mesoplodon ginkgodens).

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Since then, corpses of the whale were found on Kiribati, Palmyra Atoll, the Maldives and the Seychelles. Genetic analysis of the whales and examination of their physical characteristics have now confirmed that Mesoplodon hotaula deserves classification as a distinct species of beaked whale. The journal Marine Mammal Science published the description of the resurrected species.

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Although beaked whales live everywhere from the polar regions to the equator, they remain mysterious.

The animals swim in the deep waters off the continental shelves, ranking among Earth’s champion divers. In the Journal of Experimental Biology, scientists recorded one species, Cuvier’s beaked whale, diving to 1,888 meters (6,194 feet) and staying down for 85 minutes.

“They are rarely seen at sea due to their elusive habits, long dive capacity and apparent low abundance for some species,” said Merel Dalebout of the University of New South Wales, in a press release. Dalebout led the team that described the new species.


 Blainville’s beaked whale, Mesoplodon densirostris, a relative of the newly described species. (NOAA, Wikimedia Commons)

Male specimen of Mesoplodon hotaula that washed up on Desroches Island in the Seychelles in 2009, shown with men from the island. It was found by Wayne Thompson (far right in picture) and Lisa Thompson of the Island Conservation Society of the Seychelles. (CREDIT: Lisa Thompson)