New Pacific Whale Species Discovered

October, 2016

A new Pacific beaked whale species, unknown to science, was confirmed this summer. It had previously only been seen by Japanese fishermen who called them karasu—the ravens. 

The search for this species began as early as 1948, when an unidentified whale skull was found on an Aleutian island and was placed in the Smithsonian Institute. Other specimens began popping up across the Pacific; one found in Alaska and another stranded in 2004 on the Aleutian island of Unalaska.

After three unknown whales were beached in Japan in 2013, Japanese researchers suggested a new species was at hand. A comparison of genetic samples linked the whales beached in Japan to the previously found specimens, as well as another whale found beached in Alaska in 2014.

Biologist Phillip Morin and his team at NOAA published a paper in the journal of Marine Mammal Science in July revealing the whale as a new species to science, thanks to this DNA analysis. 

Discovery of unknown large mammals are very rare, even in the ocean. As the study’s co-author Paul Wade puts it, “It’s a really big deal."

Beaked whales are notoriously difficult to research due to infrequent breaching of the water’s surface and a tendency to travel in small groups. This new species is particularly rare, and is said to have porpoise qualities like a beak and bulbous head. It is considered to be closely related to the Arnoux’s beaked whale of the southern hemisphere, and shark-related scars on beached specimens suggest that it migrates to the tropics. Other than that, and what is already known of beaked whales, almost nothing is known about this species. 

Japanese researchers say the next step is formally describing the species and its measurements as well as assigning it a taxonomic and common name. As researcher Phillip Morin stated, “Clearly this species is very rare and reminds us how much we have to learn about the ocean and even some of its largest inhabitants.” There is still much yet to be discovered about our world’s oceans. 

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