A curious looking whale that washed up on the shores of St. George Island (one of the Pribilof Islands in the state of Alaska) in 2014 might actually be a new whale species according to a recent study published in the scientific journal Marine Mammal Science. Originally it was thought to be a small Baird’s beaked whale. However, after genetic analysis of the the deceased whale researchers determined that it may in fact be a new species of beaked whale. DNA from the deceased whale was compared to a variety of beaked whale samples from the Pacific (including the skeleton of a whale hanging in a high school gymnasium in the Aleutian Islands). From those samples eight individuals genetically matched the deceased whale and after further genetic analysis the researchers determined that this group was genetically distinctive from the Baird’s beaked whale.
Japanese fishermen have seen this particular species of whale for years and refer to it as the karasu or raven (it is darker than the Baird’s beaked whale) but it was never really considered a separate species until now. Additional genetic analysis and observation of living individuals (aside from fishermen no one has seen one alive) will help scientists determine if this is truly a new species. An official taxonomic name has not been given to this new species but hopefully it will incorporate karasu into the taxonomic or common name. Or the they could call it the Nevermore Whale 🙂
Beaked whales belong to the taxonomic family Ziphiidae and comprise 25% of all cetacean species (whales and dolphins). They are referred to as “beaked” due to their extended rostrum or snout. Little is known of beaked whales and species identification can be difficult due to physical similarities. This may explain why this new species was not identified until modern genetic analysis could be used to separate it from other beaked whales. This new species will belong to the genus Berardius which includes the Baird’s beaked whale from the North Pacific and the Arnoux’s beaked whale from the Southern Hemisphere.
About the Illustration: My interpretation of the “Raven”. Watercolor. Beaked whales are a bit shapeless so it was difficult to create something that did not look like a blob. My sad illustration aside this is a pretty amazing story. To find a new whale species in 2016 is pretty awesome. Let’s hope we do not drive it to extinction before it is officially named.
For More Information: If you would like to read the original journal article this post was based on click on the link. It is actually an open access article. Morin et al. Marine Mammal Science. June 26, 2016. Genetic structure of the beaked whale genus Berardius in the North Pacific, with genetic evidence for a new species