"Discovering a new species of whale in 2016 is exciting but it also reveals how little we know…”
Scientists have identified a rare new species of beaked whale that inhabits the waters from northern Japan all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
The new species is a beaked whale, similar to the more common Baird's beaked whale, but darker in color and about two thirds the size. Japanese whalers refer to them "karasu," the Japanese word for raven, though these animals are rarely spotted, even by whalers.
Reporting in the journal Marine Mammal Science, the researchers documented eight examples of the new species after analyzing the DNA of 178 beaked whales. The eight were specimens hailing from the Smithsonian Institution and Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and an Alaska high school, and one specimen had washed up on an island in the Bering Sea.
"The challenge in documenting the species was simply locating enough specimens to provide convincing evidence," said study lead author Phillip Morin, a researcher at NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center, in a press release.
"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."
Previously, the small, dark whales were thought to be a dwarf form of the Baird’s beaked whale. The new analysis confirms that not only is it a completely different species, but it is also more closely related to the to Arnoux's beaked whale from the Southern Hemisphere.
Before the species can be officially named and recognized as a new species, it will be subjected to formal review of how its characteristics differ from other beaked whales.
"The implication of a new species of beaked whale is that we need to reconsider management of both species to be sure they're sufficiently protected, considering how rare the new one appears to be," says Erich Hoyt, a research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the UK and coauthor of the study.
"Discovering a new species of whale in 2016 is exciting but it also reveals how little we know and how much more work we have to do to truly understand these species."
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