Nature, Science

DNA Evidence Helps Discover New Whale Species

A new beaked whale species has been discovered in the North Pacific.
Photo: Shutterstock

Beaked whales, which have pointed noses like their dolphin cousins, are not very well understood compared to other types of whales. They aren’t seen as often or studied as much, and scientists have discovered several species just in the past few decades. Now we’re about to add another to that list thanks to some recent discoveries using genetic research.

The Baird’s beaked whale has been known for a while, and is among the species caught by Japanese whaling crews. Every once in a while, though, they find smaller, black specimens, which until recently were just assumed to be Baird’s beaked whales. But their size, up to about 25 feet, and their distinct coloration led some scientists to posit that they might be a different species.

A recent study of genetic information from 178 whales once classified as Baird’s beaked whales, or as an unknown potential species, found that eight of those samples are in fact from a newly discovered species.

Though very similar to the Baird’s, this new species is actually more closely related to another species, the Arnoux’s beaked whale from the Southern Hemisphere. The new species also has a smaller range, from northern Japan to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, though we don’t know much more about them yet.

“The implication of a new species of beaked whale is that we need to reconsider management of both species to be sure they are sufficiently protected, considering how rare the new one appears to be,” said Erich Hoyt, a research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the United Kingdom, and co-director of the Russian Cetacean Habitat Project.

Beaked whales dive deep to feed on bottom fish, squid, and other creatures that live thousands of feet below sea level. We can make some basic arguments about the whales based on what we know, do far, but with so few samples it’s hard to know much more.

While finding a new species of whale is very exciting, it highlights just how little we actually know about the ocean and its inhabitants. Hopefully further study can tell us more about this new species, which still has to be officially recognized and named.

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