It is truly extraordinary to think that in an age full of such advanced technology, innovations, and philosophies that we are still discovering new species of animals. However, this is not just any animal species, this is the discovery of an approximately 24 foot long whale. It is pretty remarkable to think that, until now, we knew nothing of the whale species let alone its existence.
Uncovering a mystery
The mystery began when a cetacean corpse washed ashore in June 2014 near the Pribilof Islands community in St. George. This community is located in the middle of Alaska’s Being Sea on a tiny haven of rocks and grass inhabited by roughly 100 people. The island is a popular destination for hundreds of thousands of seal species, and visited by 2.5 million birds each year. A biology teacher, Christian Hagenlocher, was walking along the wide, deserted sandy beach in St. George when he spotted the carcass half-buried as though it had been there for some time. Curious he went over to the whale and then decided to call a former fur seal researcher, Karin Holser, for further examination.
Holser looked at the whale and at first assumed that they had found a Baird’s beaked whale also called a giant bottlenose whale. Baird’s beaked whales are rather large; in fact the largest of the known beaked whale species reaching up to 42 feet in length and can weigh more than 24,000 pounds. These deep diving whales are rarely seen alive, and most of what we know about them has been discovered from their deceased counterparts that wash ashore with the tide. Beaked whales are hunted in Japan for resources but there is still very little we know about them since they spend the majority of their time feeding a exploring in large groups 3,000 feet below the ocean surface.
When Hosler further examined the whale, after some debris that was covering it washed away with the changing tide, she realized something wasn’t quite right with her previous assumption. She thought the flesh of the mystery whale was much too dark to be a Baird’s beaked whale and that the dorsal fin was also different. The whale she examined had a big and floppy fin in comparison to Baird’s beaked whales. She also noticed that the animal was shorter than the typical Baird’s whale adult but the teeth were worn and yellowed from age.
Fast forward to 2016
According to new research published this last Tuesday, Hosler was correct in doubting her original assumption and that the whale they discovered was not a Baird’s beaked whale at all; it is a new species that is smaller and darker than other beaked whales in the region. In fact, since the research has come out, it has been reported that Japanese fishermen have seen this odd-shaped species before and have long called it karasu which means raven. Other than this there is no previous record or sightings of these whales alive, almost like folklore.
Phillip Morin is a molecular geneticist working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science center who worked on this newly published research. Morin states, “We don’t know how many there are, where they’re typically found, anything. But we’re going to start looking.” It goes without saying that it is pretty rare and special to discover a new species let alone a new species as something as large as a whale. In the past 15 years, advancement in DNA research has allowed scientists and researchers to successfully identify five new cetacean species. Of these five cetacean species, two were dolphins that were categorized as a simple species split between two rather similar species. This just emphasizes the rarity of this discovery and research.
Co-author Paul Wade of NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory comments, “It’s a really big deal. If you think about it, on land discovery of large mammals is exceptionally rare. It just doesn’t happen very often. It’s quite remarkable.
What do we know about this new whale?
This whale is classified in the genus Berardius which includes other beaked whales. However, is looks noticeably different from its closest relative and also inhabits an area of the North Pacific. This raises quite a bit of red flags since marine mammal research has been conducted in these waters for multiple decades.
Morin and his team of scientists examined the whale found at St. George in Alaska. They took bone powder from old museum specimens and reviewed DNA tests from whales found in the Sea of Okhotsk near Russia and China. They then examined skulls and beaks from records of whaling fleets in Japan. They were even able to find a skeleton hanging in a high school gymnasium in the Aleutian Islands that was able to provide them clues and information about the mysterious whale.
The study published in Marine Mammal Science concludes that this whale is indeed a new type of whale and is genetically quite far removed or distantly related to other cetaceans like the Northern Hemisphere’s Baird’s beaked whales. In fact scientists found that it is nearly as far removed from the Baird’s beaked whale as it is from its closet known relative, the Arnoux’s beaked whales, which are found in the Antarctic Ocean. The currently unnamed new species is so dramatically different from its closest relatives that the researchers believe the whale has to be something else entirely.
“It’s just so exciting to think that in 2016 we’re still discovering things in our world- even mammals that are more than 20 feet long,” Morin says and he is not alone in this excitement. Robert Pitman works on a taxonomy committee for the Society of Marine Mammalogy. This committee publishes a yearly list of any and all recognized marine mammal species. He is also an author on the new study along with 16 others. Pitman calls the discovery of this new species “heartening” in the wake of so much decline in marine mammal species. For example, the Yangtze River dolphin is now classified as functionally extinct, and Mexico’s vaquita porpoise is close to the same fate with fewer than 90 individuals left in the population. Pitman questions what we know when he says, “It boggles my mind to think that a large, very different-looking whale has gone unnoticed by the scientific community for so long. It sends a clear message about how little we know about what is in the ocean around us.”
The mystery whale’s future
There are currently 88 recognized members of order cetacean which includes all dolphins, whales, and porpoises. Of these 88 species there are 22 recognized beaked whales. There is still much to do before the mystery animal can be proven and recognized as a new species. Morin and his team have done vast work on the project using various specimens all around the Northern Hemisphere. “The genetic variation within the forms was little, while the divergence between them was much larger. That’s our strongest argument,” Morin says of the discovery.
The whale will need to be formally named and described. Also, Morin and his team’s findings will have to be accepted by the experts that track and record cetacean taxonomy. However, Pitman and others examining the study say that there is a very strong case for a new species here.
It is absolutely incredible that a new whale species has been discovered in a modern world where many people think we have everything figured out. It is eye opening to know that everything we have discovered and decided we know in the world is just the beginning of our time here on this planet. The ocean is in a pivotal and critical state right now thanks to the generally oblivious and indifferent nature of human beings. “We’re doing increasing damage to our environment, and we can’t even begin to conserve the biodiversity we know is out there. Yet there’s so much more about our world we don’t even understand,” Morin says of the discovery. Let this study be a catalyst to inspire future conservation, wonder, and respect for not only the world’s oceans but for our planet Earth.