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New species of ancient whale found in New Zealand

"This is a pretty old whale that goes almost half-way back to the age of the dinosaurs," said paleontologist Ewan Fordyce.

By Brooks Hays
New species of ancient whale found in New Zealand
The whale fossil was found 30 years ago but only recently studied in-depth. Photo by Cheng-Hsiu Tsai, et al./Royal Society Open Science

April 18 (UPI) -- Paleontologists have identified a new extinct baleen whale species and genus in New Zealand. Scientists named the species Toipahautea waitaki, Māori for "baleen whale from the Waitaki region."

The new classification is based on the analysis of a skull and related bones recovered from Kokoamu Greensand, a fossil-rich rock deposit on New Zealand's South Island. The geological formation spans the Late Oligocene period, which stretches from 33.9 million to 23 million years ago.

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At the time of Toipahautea waitaki's existence, New Zealand was an archipelago surrounded by shallow seas.

"This is a pretty old whale that goes almost half-way back to the age of the dinosaurs. We are tracking whale history back through time," Ewan Fordyce, a professor at the University of Otago, said in a news release. "This newly named whale lived about 27.5 million years ago. It's about as old a common ancestor as we have for the living baleen whales like the minke whales and the right whales."

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Baleen whales forgo teeth in favor of long hair plates that filter krill and other tiny organisms from the ocean water.

The disarticulate fossil was originally found 30 years ago, but wasn't studied in-depth until recently. Though disconnected, scientists had enough related remains to reconstruct the species skeleton and make an identification. The species was relatively small, measuring just 16 feet in length.

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"That's about half the size of an adult minke whale," Fordyce said.

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Researchers described their discovery in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

"We are pretty sure there are some species [of baleen whale] that will be older than these," Fordyce said. "But right now it anchors the modern baleen whale lineage to at least 27.5 million years."

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