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Scientists To Examine World’s Weirdest Whale

6 May 2008


International Scientists To Examine Rare Pygmy Right Whale, The World’s Weirdest Whale, At Te Papa – Tuesday 6 May

Scientists from Australia, the United States and New Zealand have gathered at Te Papa for the dissection of a pygmy right whale Caperea marginata to study the anatomy and evolutionary relationships of this unusual species.

Despite having a head that looks like a tiny right whale, scientists do not believe that the pygmy right whale is closely related to its much larger namesake. One peculiarity is the number of ribs the species has - more numerous than other whale species, some of which are flattened and overlap. As there is no fossil record of this species, scientists are intrigued by the opportunity to explain where this species fits into whale evolution.

The pygmy right whale is the smallest baleen whale that grows up to 6.5m long. It is a southern hemisphere species, found most often around New Zealand and southern Australia. The specimen being examined this week (an infant whale about 2m long and weighing 141kg) was stranded in the Far North in May 2007 and sent to Te Papa with agreement by local iwi, Ngäti Kuri and Te Aupouri, and the Department of Conservation.

‘The first major anatomical examination of pygmy right whales was facilitated by Te Papa in 1996’, said Dr Carol Diebel, Te Papa’s Natural Environment director.

‘Twelve years on, there has been renewed interest in the species and this team of scientists will be focussing on questions raised during the first examination,’ Dr Diebel said.

Scientists will be completing a detailed examination of the pygmy right whale’s larynx that will add to the global scientific community’s understanding of low frequency sound production in baleen whales. The specimen’s musculature will be documented in detail to allow for comparisons with other species and a better understanding of the remarkable and unique anatomical features of this species.

Anton van Helden, Te Papa’s marine mammals collections’ manager will lead the dissection in Te Papa’s necropsy room in the Tory St facility starting on Tuesday 6 May. The detailed examination is likely to take three to four days.

‘This is an incredible opportunity for Te Papa to host an international collaboration of leading whale scientists in an investigation of such a rare and unusual species from this region,’ said Mr van Helden.

‘We are pleased that the world’s leading authority on pygmy right whales, Dr Catherine Kemper of The South Australian Museum will be here along with Dr Joy Reidenberg of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York; Dr Sentiel Rommel of the University of North Carolina and Otago University’s Dr Ewan Fordyce,’ Mr van Helden said.

The scientists will be documenting the dissection via Te Papa’s blog, and will present an overview of pygmy right whales and current research in an event organised by the Friends of Te Papa on Wednesday evening at Te Papa.

Further information about the scientists and the special presentation follow at the end of the media release.


Scientists attending:

Anton van Helden, Te Papa’s Marine Mammal scientist, will be joined by four whale scientists from around the world to dissect the pygmy right whale:
Dr Catherine Kemper from The South Australian Museum, Adelaide - the world’s leading authority on pygmy right whales.
Dr Ewan Fordyce from Otago University, Dunedin - an anatomist and palaeontologist who specialises in whale evolution and systematics.
Dr Joy Reidenberg, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York - a comparative anatomist, who is interested in sound production in baleen whales.
Dr Sentiel “Butch” Rommel, University of North Carolina who took part in the 1997 pygmy right whale dissection. His research interests include understanding the functional morphology of the skeleton and associated soft tissues of whale species.

Special whales talk
Wednesday 7 May, 6.30pm – 8.30pm
The team of international whale scientists will talk about their work and recent discoveries at a special event organised by Friends of Te Papa.
Telstra Clear Centre, Level 3 at Te Papa. Free entry.
To reserve a place please phone the Friends office (04) 381 7051 or email friends[at]

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