This New Species of Whale Was Discovered Hiding in Plain Sight

IMAGE Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Every year, thousands of new species of animals and plants are discovered. Most of these newly discovered species are plants, small reptiles, and insects. But when something as large as a whale turns out to be an entirely new species, it’s hard not to be surprised. 

In a study published in January 2021 in the journal Marine Mammal Science, researchers announced the discovery of a new species of baleen whale. The brand-new species was named Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei), which is found in the northeastern part of the Gulf of Mexico. 

Fewer Than 100 Whales are Left 

Although it was only in 2021 when the new whale species was published, marine biologists have been studying the mammal for years. 

The whale was named after Dale Rice, an esteemed marine scientist with over 60 years of experience in the field. In 1990, Rice discovered that a small population of whales was endemic to a very specific area of the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, it was assumed that the group of whales belong to another species of baleen called Bryde’s whales. 

According to the study published in Marine Mammal Science, there could be fewer than 100 Rice’s whales left on the planet. The Gulf of Mexico is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, and ship collisions with whales are common. But that’s just one of the threats to the survival of Rice’s whales. Abandoned fishing nets are still the leading threat to the survival of marine species, including whales, sharks, turtles, dolphins, and more. 



The Skull That Made the Difference

In 2019, a beached whale was found by a fisher in Sandy Key, Florida. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the whale’s measurements were so irregular that biologists had to take a second look.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response took time to collect samples and preserve parts of the whale, particularly its skull. First, they buried the carcass, then waited months before they dug up the skull for examination.

Rice's Whale Skull

Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Patricia Rosel, a geneticist at the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center and author of the study, examined the skull and was surprised: The bone surrounding the whale’s blowhole has a different structure. The skull revealed it was a very different species from Bryde’s whales. 

“Even something as large as a whale can be out there and be really different from all the whales, and we don’t even know it,” Rosel tells the Tampa Bay Times. “It really brings to light the urgent need of conserving and protecting these animals in the gulf, and making sure we don’t lose another marine mammal species like we already have.”

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