In what would surely constitute a once-in-a-lifetime discovery for modern day ocean scientists, a team working with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society believe they may have stumbled across a previously unknown species of whale while looking for beaked whales off the western coast of Mexico. The research’s initial aims were to study the whales in waters surrounding the San Benito Islands, specifically a beaked whale whose species hadn’t been able to be identified as it was emitting an unusual acoustic signal.
The Sea Shepherd vessel was successful in tracking down its target, when onboard research Martin Sheen spotted three beaked whales surfacing in nearby waters. The group were 100 miles north of the islands, which are about 300 miles from the United States border.
The team took photographs and video recordings of the whales and eavesdropped on their acoustic chat using a specialized underwater microphone. Upon reviewing what they found, the team of leading scientists in beak whale research were “highly confident” that these individuals belong to an unknown species. They hope that soon their assessments will be confirmed by genetic analyses of samples taken at the time, which will definitively prove that they are indeed a new species.
"We need to process the eDNA to see if we got any genetic material from the whales, and if we did, if it matches any known species of beaked whale," said researcher on the discovery Dr Elizabeth Henderson in an email to IFLScience. "Typically, classification of a new species also requires a “holotype” or skull and skeleton that provides further morphological evidence. We need to find out if a genetic sample will be enough to declare these whales are a new species, or if a skeleton is required."
"We saw something new. Something that was not expected in this area, something that doesn't match, either visually or acoustically, anything that is known to exist," said one of the researchers, Dr Jay Barlow, in a statement. "It just sends chills up and down my spine when I think that we might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible - finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science."
Cetaceans are famous for their hauntingly beautiful underwater songs and each is unique to their species making it a reliable way of ID’ing animals who are not always so easy to see. This unknown pod of whales belongs within the beaked whale family, but their song doesn’t match any of those known to science. Their physical characteristics also don’t match up with those of known species in the area, which combined with their unusual song makes it quite likely that they are indeed a new species.
"Sea Shepherd strongly believes in the critical role that scientific research plays in supporting strong conservation action," said Peter Hammarstedt, Director of Campaigns for Sea Shepherd, in a press release. "To properly protect something, you have to love it; and you cannot love that which you do not know. The discovery of a new species of beaked whale proves how much mystery there is left to discover in the oceans that our captains, crews, and research partners fight to defend.”
So, if the finding is as exciting as it sounds, who will get to name it? "If it is in fact a new species, we will get to name it ourselves," said Henderson. "I would like to name it in honor of Jay Barlow, the senior scientist that was with us on the expedition, since he has spent many years studying beaked whales."