A new species of beaked whale has been discovered, according to a new study in the journal Marine Mammal Science. The black whale, which has yet to be named, ranges across the northern Pacific Ocean, from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to northern Japan.
The species is so rare that one has yet to be seen alive. Of the 178 beaked whales sampled for DNA analysis, five were revealed to be from the new species. One of the five DNA samples— all of which were taken from dead specimens— came from a skeleton hanging in an Aleutian Island high school gym, and another from a dead carcass that washed onshore in June 2014. The latter was found half–buried in sand on the tiny island of St. George off the coast of Alaska by a young biology teacher.
According to lead study author Dr. Phillip Morin, a research molecular biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center, a new species of whale washing up dead on the beach is unusual, though not unheard of.
“It is fairly rare, but it’s not unexpected given that there is a lot of ocean between the shores that we inhabit, and a lot of beach that is not frequently surveyed by humans (who have the interest in trying to identify a dead animal on the beach),” he told Foxnews.com. “Several other beaked whale species have also only been identified by a small number of animals that have been found only after washing ashore dead.”
Not much is known about beaked whales due to the fact that they’re often at 3,000 foot–depths, feeding on squid and bottom fish.
“This is a specialized niche that probably can’t support large populations or high densities of predators, so beaked whales are naturally rare and widely dispersed in deep waters,” Morin explained. “Because they are typically found far offshore in deep water, it is even more unusual for a dead beaked whale to drift all the way to shore before it sinks, so we have few specimens of stranded animals.”
The largest is the Baird’s beaked whale, which measures about 35 feet long. According to the DNA analysis, the new species is less related to the Baird’s beaked whale than it is to Arnoux’s beaked whale, which are found in the southern hemisphere.
As for other attributes, according to Morin, “We have less information to go on physically, but the adult specimens we have been able to measure were about 2/3 the size of Baird’s beaked whale, had darker skin, and a different shape to the head and beak.”
These differences from other beaked whales will undergo a review to see if they’re distinctive enough to be officially recognized and named as a new species. In addition to the five examples identified in Morin’s DNA analysis, evidence will include three specimens that were discovered stranded in Northern Japan and used in a 2013 Japanese study.
“[The Japanese researchers] used genetic methods to show that these 3 whales were different from the known Baird’s beaked whales that are found near Japan and still hunted by Japanese whalers,” Morin said. “They suggested that these 3 animals might be from a new species, but the evidence was limited because they only had specimens (of both species) from around Japan.”
Morin hopes that his research on population structure, taxonomy and evolutionary history of whales will help scientists understand what species are found in our nation’s waters, how they are distributed, and whether the populations are healthy or in need of conservation management.
“There are many threats to marine mammals, including pollution, fisheries bycatch, fishing gear entanglement, ocean noise, seismic exploration, military sonar, and climate change, so we are trying to both discover species and their natural distributions and protect them at the same time,” he said.