Discovery of new, very rare whale species ‘really a big deal’

After more than two years, scientists determined that the unidentified whale that washed ashore on an Alaskan island is new species of beaked whale.

The only skeleton of the new species in the US, the one that washed ashore in Alaska's Aleutian Islands in 2004, hangs on display at Unalaska High School.

The only skeleton of the new species in the US, the one that washed ashore in Alaska's Aleutian Islands in 2004, hangs on display at Unalaska High School. Photo: Courtesy of Unalaska City School District

When the remains of an unidentified whale washed ashore on a tiny Alaskan island in the Bering Sea in June 2014, a scientific search was launched to learn its identity, initially thought to be a Baird's beaked whale.

After more than two years of detective work, an international team of scientists has determined that the whale found on St. George Island is a rare new species of beaked whale that ranges from northern Japan across the Pacific Ocean to the Alaska's Aleutian Islands, according to National Geographic and NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region.

"We don’t know how many there are, where they’re typically found, anything," Phillip Morin, a molecular geneticist at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author, told National Geographic. "But we’re going to start looking.

"It's just so exciting to think that in 2016 we're still discovering things in our world--even mammals that are more than 20-feet long."

A rendering of the newly identified species of beaked whale.

A rendering of the newly identified species of beaked whale. Photo: Courtesy of Uko Gorter/Natural History Illustration

News of the study was published Tuesday in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

"It's a really big deal," co-author Paul Wade of NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory told National Geographic. "If you think about it, on land, discovery of new species of large mammals is exceptionally rare. It just doesn’t happen very often. It’s quite remarkable."

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Equally as excited is Robert Pitman of the Society for Marine Mammalogy.

"It boggles my mind to think that a large, very different-looking whale has gone unnoticed by the scientific community for so long," Pitman told National Geographic. "It sends a clear message about how little we know about what is in the ocean around us."

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Morin and his team examined the St. George carcass, took bone powder from old museum specimens, and reviewed DNA tests of whales from the Sea of Okhotsk. They studied skulls and beaks and analyzed records from whaling fleets in Japan. They even tracked down a skeleton hanging from the ceiling in a high school gymnasium in the Aleutian Islands [those remains washed ashore in 2004].

The scientists conclude in their study published in Marine Mammal Science that this type of whale, which has not yet been named, is nearly as far removed genetically from the Northern Hemisphere’s Baird’s beaked whales as it is from its closest known relative, Arnoux’s beaked whales, which swim in the Antarctic Ocean. The differences, in fact, are so dramatic that the animal has to be something else, they say.

The unidentified whale remains that washed ashore on an Alaskan island in the Bering Sea in 2014 started a scientific search for its identity.

The unidentified whale remains that washed ashore on an Alaskan island in the Bering Sea in 2014 started a scientific search for its identity. Photo: Courtesy of Karin Holser/National Geographic

The new species, known to Japanese whalers as karasu or raven, is darker and two-thirds the size of the Baird's beaked whale, and are said to be so scarce even whalers rarely see them.

"The challenge in documenting the species was simply locating enough specimens to provide convincing evidence," Morin said in the 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."

Co-author Erich Hoyt, a research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the United Kingdom and co-director of the Russian Cetacean Habitat Project, said that management needs to be considered for the new species of beaked whale, considering how rare it appears to be.

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