• February 9, 2023

New Whale Species Identified In The Gulf, Scientists Say : NPR

Rice whales can grow up to 42 feet, but fewer than 100 remain. Hide NOAA caption

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Rice whales can grow up to 42 feet, but fewer than 100 remain.

NOAA

Researchers with NOAA believe they have identified a new species of whale in the Gulf of Mexico. The rice whale is a filter feeder that can grow up to 42 feet. It is also critically endangered. It is believed that fewer than a hundred of them are left.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists first discovered that a small whale population lived in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico year-round. Marine biologists thought they were Brydes (pronounced “Broodus”) whales, members of a species that live in warm waters around the world.

Patricia Rosel, a research geneticist at NOAA Fisheries, says, “The first clue that you might have something unique, really more unique, came from genetic data we collected 15 years ago in the mid-2000s.”

These genetic data suggested it was a new species. To confirm this, Rosel and her colleagues needed morphological data – information that showed that the skulls of the whales in the Gulf were different from those of their close relatives. They finally got that in 2019, when a whale was stranded in southwest Florida.

Rosel says, “Through some really tremendous effort of the Stranding network to answer this dead whale. … and save and preserve, we could finally look at the skull morphology and make comparisons with the other Bryde whales. ”

The main difference Rosel found is a group of bones at the top of the skull that set rice whales apart from other species. Rosel and her colleagues recently published their findings in Marine Mammal Science. The whale is named for Dale Rice, the marine mammal biologist who first identified the population in the Gulf.

Whales can be hard to study, Rosel says, especially those like Rice’s whales, which do not migrate and spend most of their time far away from shore. “The ocean is big,” says Rosel. “And so they’re spread out over a large area. And you can generally only see them for seconds when they come up to breathe. And then they spend much of their remaining time underwater.”

Along with oil spills, marine noise, and maritime traffic, one of the greatest threats to the newly named species is its low population, which makes the loss of even a single whale significant.

Jack

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