Whale Ho! A Potential New Whale Species?

As you may or may not have heard that there is a potentially new species of a beaked whale! Scientists just discovered this new species off Baja California. Here we explain how scientists discovered this possibly new species. We will also dive into how to determine if there is, in fact, a new species of whales.

“Whale” in the World are These Beaked Beauties?

Near the San Benito Islands, about 300 miles (482.8Km) off the US border. Indeed, scientists working with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society heard unidentified sounds; something that perplexed them. On top of these weird recordings, they spotted three undocumented beaked whales in the area. Luckily, they managed to photograph the whales and record acoustic signals via a hydrophone. Initially, they thought it could be the rare Perrin’s beaked whale. But these whales were like nothing they had ever seen! Researchers Dr. Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, Dr. Jay Barlow, and Dr. Elizabeth Henderson state their confidence in their findings. It is a great feat, considering most would think it hard to have someone see something as big as a whale. So as you are reading this, you might be wondering, what makes them so confident?

Concluding Evidence

Beaked whales are typically not as charismatic as their other cetaceans. They are also difficult to come by, given they inhabit abyssal waters and do not spend a lot of time at the surface. Imagine the team’s surprise when they found these three individuals close to their boat! It was the perfect opportunity for the team to collect data and try to identify the whales. The researchers noticed right away that they did not look like any beaked whale they knew, nor did they sound like any they had heard either.

new whale species
An artistic rendition of the potentially new whale species, by Markus Buhler

On top of physically looking different, every whale species has a unique acoustic vocalization. These special sounds help scientists and whale watchers identify them from afar. Unfortunately, scientists cannot solely rely on that information to confirm a new species. Indeed, some populations within the same species can sound and look different. As a quick example, we can look at type D killer whales versus Southern Resident killer whales found off the Pacific Northwest of North America. Not only do they sound different, but they also look different. Despite these differences, they are considered the same species, at least until now. Additionally, certain cetacean species have been recorded imitating other species’ vocalization patterns, like killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, and belugas. Therefore, scientists like to look at the genetic material of species (the DNA).

DNA contains the genetic code of organisms, and it makes them who they are. It is the telling sign of what makes a species unique that might go unobserved to the human eye or ear. As a result, scientists rely on genetic tests to help them truly solidify their finds. The whole marine mammology world is now anxiously waiting for these results. They will confirm if the three individuals spotted off Baja California belong to a new species, or not. So stay tuned for some more news on these mysterious beaked whales.

Thanks for reading!!

Sources and further reading

If you want to check out more of Markus Bühler’s work: click here.

Naomi Mathew is a PhD student at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She works on bioacoustics in marine mammals from the Gulf of Mexico. She is the co-founder of Whale Scientists. You can read more about her here

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