Ramari’s beaked whale, a mysterious discovery

The ocean is a mysterious world. Humans know more about other planets in our solar system than about the ocean floor. In fact, the diversity of whales inhabiting the ocean’s depths is among some things we do not fully comprehend yet. But thanks to new methods, such as acoustic recording and genetic testing, new species of cetaceans have come to light. We have introduced one such species before, Rice’s whale, and now it’s time we introduce another – meet the Ramari’s beaked whale!

A strange whale strands on shore

In 2011, a rare beaked whale stranded on Waiatoto Split, near the town of Haast, on the South Island of Aotearoa (New Zealand). She was around 16 feet (~4.9 meters or so) long, and unfortunately, she was pregnant. The Māori tribe that found this stranded whale named it “Nihongore”. Based on a quick search, the term in Māori means “toothless”. Beaked whales stand apart from other toothed whales: they only have a pair of tusk-like teeth, which are more prominent in males. For females, these tusks remain hidden as they do not grow beyond the gums. Since the stranded whale was a female, the term “toothless” makes a lot of sense.

At the time Nihongore stranded, scientists thought she was a True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus), but there was more to her story. Years later, scientists revisited the skeleton of the stranded whales and made a curious discovery…

A True’s beaked whale — Wikicommons

A deeper analysis leads to a new species

Nihongore as a True’s beaked whale seemed plausible since they were reported to occur in other regions of the southern hemisphere such as South Africa, Chile, and Australia. But it was not the end of Nihongore’s story. In 2021, Māori whale expert Ramari Stewart, in collaboration with Dr. Emma Carroll from the University of Auckland realized that the whale’s skull differed from True’s beaked whales.

Additional genomic analyses of several “True’s beaked whales” from the northern and southern hemispheres revealed that those in the southern hemisphere are actually a different species, even though they remain close genetically. These analyses further showed that the two species had diverged up to two million years ago. 

A name to honor Ramari

It was no secret that Nihongore was special to tohunga tohorā (whale expert) Ramari Stewart. As an important leader in her community, Ramari was trained in Māori traditional knowledge of the sea and could recognize that this whale was something special, and something new. 

This new species is named after her, a testament to the deep relationship between the Māori people and whales. Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu) was given the species name “eueu“, a Khoisan word for “big fish”. This was a tribute to how specimens found in South Africa where the Khoisan people live contributed to identifying this new species. It was a deliberate choice by the scientists involved in identifying Ramari’s beaked whale to emphasize Indigenous contributions to the world of whale science.

Like other beaked whales, there is without a doubt more to learn about Ramari’s beaked whales. Beaked whales as a general rule remain mysterious, living in deep waters and often far offshore. This can make them difficult to study, so any glimpse into their world is welcome. Let’s hope more research comes up to explain the intricacies of their deep lives.

Sources

Carroll, Emma L, Michael R McGowen, Morgan L McCarthy, Felix G Marx, Natacha Aguilar, Merel L Dalebout, Sascha Dreyer, et al. “Speciation in the Deep: Genomics and Morphology Reveal a New Species of Beaked Whale Mesoplodon Eueu.” Proceedings of the Royal Society. B, Biological sciences 288, no. 1961 (2021): 20211213-.

My name is Andrew Loyd Smith (He/Him), and I am pursuing my Master's in Anthropology at California State University, Long Beach.

I am a multispecies ethnographer based in California, focused on the co-creation of story aboard the whale watch between humans and cetaceans (especially dolphins!). I am working to show and share how the whale watch is not just a recreational activity, but in fact a meeting of intelligent minds.

My fieldwork is based on participant observation - I go whale watching for data collection! I am a certified wildlife researcher and human subjects researcher through CITI, and so often will include the data that I have worked with/collected over the course of my research in my posts. Happy to share!

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