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Have scientists discovered a new species of whale?

A new species of beaked whale may have been discovered, according to a new paper, co-authored by WDC research fellow, Erich Hoyt, and published in Marine Mammal Science.

It follows the discovery of a dead whale that washed up on a beach in Alaska in 2014. Initially it was thought to be a Baird’s beaked whale but it soon become clear that the creature, which measured over seven metres long, was a different species altogether.

Having compared the skull and DNA with that of whales known to inhabit the North Pacific, along with an analysis of records from whaling fleets, the authors of the report believe it is likely to be an entirely new species, one that Japanese fishermen called “karasu” or raven, due to its black colouration. Samples were also compared with the remains of other whales matching a similar description that were held in the the US and Japan. These matched the new species.

The DNA analysis shows that the new species and Baird’s beaked whale are each more closely related to Arnoux’s beaked whale from the Southern Hemisphere than they are to each other. 

“Japanese whalers have known about the black form but didn’t consider it a separate species,” said Erich, who is also co-director of the Russian Cetacean Habitat Project. The research group contributed genetic samples from beaked whales in the Russian Far East. 

“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,” Hoyt said. “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.” 

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.