U.S. government scientists recently discovered a new whale species.
Scientists had long considered a group of whales in the Gulf of Mexico a subset of Bryde’s whales, which are also found in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Yet these massive and endangered whales seemed different, and a little mysterious.
While Bryde’s whales live near the surface, the whales in the Gulf of Mexico plunge the depths for food. And while they can grow to nearly 13 meters long and weigh more than 27,000 kilograms — five times heavier than an elephant — no one knows for certain what they eat.
“I was surprised that there could be an unrecognized species of whale out there, especially in our backyard,” Lynsey Wilcox, a scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service, who aided in the discovery, told The Guardian.
NOAA researchers named the newly identified, unique species Rice’s whales in honor of American biologist Dale Rice. The discovery will help researchers better understand and protect the critically endangered whales, which number as a few as 33.
NOAA Fisheries scientists detail their findings in a January 10 study published in Marine Mammal Science. The discovery came after one of the whales was found stranded ashore in Florida in 2019, allowing scientists to conduct a first-ever analysis of its skull. They found unique features that distinguished Rice’s whales from Bryde’s whales. DNA testing confirmed that the Rice’s whales are a unique species.
NOAA Fisheries’ Patricia Rosel, who analyzed the skull, says further study of Rice’s whales is needed to identify potential habitat and threats to the endangered species, the Associated Press reports.
Lori Schwacke, of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, says NOAA researchers’ discovery provides added motivation to protect the critically endangered whales.
“It’s such a small population in the Gulf of Mexico that marine scientists and managers were already focused on conservation efforts for them,” Schwacke told the Associated Press. “But now confirming that these whales are indeed a previously unknown species really raises those stakes.”