Discovering a new whale species would be a once-in-a-lifetime discovery for any modern-day ocean scientist. Apparently, it has just become reality for a lucky few of them.
A team of scientists working with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society believe they may have stumbled across a previously unknown species of whale while looking for beaked whales off the western coast of Mexico. The sightings occurred 100 miles north of Mexico’s San Benito Islands, a remote archipelago located approximately 300 miles from the US border.
The research’s original aim was to study the cetaceans present in the waters surrounding the San Benito Islands, specifically a type of unidentified beaked whale that has previously been recorded emitting an unusual acoustic signal.
The Sea Shepherd vessel Martin Sheen successfuly tracked down its target, and researchers were able to take photographs and video recordings of the whales, also recording the acoustic signals they emit. Upon analyzing what they found, the team of leading scientists in beak whale research were “highly confident” that these individuals belong to an unknown species. They hope that their assessments will soon be confirmed by genetic analyses of samples taken at the time of the sigting, proving the existence of this new species definitively.
“We need to process the eDNA to see if we got any genetic material from the whales, and if we did, if it matches any known species of beaked whale,” researcher Dr Elizabeth Henderson told IFLScience. “Typically, classification of a new species also requires a ‘holotype’ or skull and skeleton that provides further morphological evidence. We need to find out if a genetic sample will be enough to declare these whales are a new species, or if a skeleton is required.”
“We saw something new. Something that was not expected in this area, something that doesn’t match, either visually or acoustically, anything that is known to exist,” researcher Dr Jay Barlow said in a statement. “It just sends chills up and down my spine when I think that we might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible – finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science.”
Beaked whales, like all cetaceans, emit distinct acoustic echolocation signals under the water. These sounds create hauntingly beautiful underwater songs that are unique to each species and can reliably identify the types of beaked whales present in the area.
The song of this unknown pod of whales doesn’t match any of those known to science. Their physical characteristics also don’t match up with those of known species in the area, which, combined with their unusual song, makes it quite likely that they are indeed a new species.
“Sea Shepherd strongly believes in the critical role that scientific research plays in supporting strong conservation action,” said Peter Hammarstedt, Director of Campaigns for Sea Shepherd, in a press release. “To properly protect something, you have to love it; and you cannot love that which you do not know. The discovery of a new species of beaked whale proves how much mystery there is left to discover in the oceans that our captains, crews, and research partners fight to defend.”
So, if the finding is really so exciting, who will get to name it? “If it is in fact a new species, we will get to name it ourselves,” said Henderson. “I would like to name it in honor of Jay Barlow, the senior scientist that was with us on the expedition, since he has spent many years studying beaked whales.”