A new species of whale living in the cold waters of the Bering Sea may have just been discovered. Originally thought to have been an odd variety of Baird's beaked whale, genetic analysis and a comprehensive review of the whale’s appearance suggest that the cetacean could in fact be new to science, and the skeleton of one of the animals may have been hanging unidentified in a school gym this whole time.
After the carcass of an odd-looking whale washed up in Alaska in 2014, scientists set out to see if the remains may be from an as yet undescribed species. Researchers conducted DNA analysis on 178 beaked whale samples collected from right across the northern Pacific Rim and stored in collections such as the Smithsonian Institution and Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, as well as samples taken from whale meat markets in Japan.
They found that from these collections, they could identify eight samples taken from the as yet unnamed whale, and that the skeleton now hanging in the gym hall of Unalaska High School also comes from this mysterious cetacean. The results have been published in the journal Marine Mammal Science. Yet it seems that the whale may have been known about for much longer, even if people didn’t realize it at the time.
It turns out that Japanese whalers have noted for quite a while that there were seemingly two forms of the Baird’s beaked whale, one larger grey variety and a smaller black kind, which the sailors referred to as “karasu”, or raven. They had presumed that due to its scarcity and similarities with the larger whale, the karasu was just an odd variant and there was nothing more to it. But it now seems that they may have been catching the new species this whole time.
Genetic analysis of the two types show that they are actually quite distinct, with both being more closely related to a third whale in the Berardius genus, Arnoux’s beaked whale, that is limited to the Antarctic waters of the South Pacific. This, coupled with the distinct morphological characteristics of being smaller in size and darker in color, provide a good argument that we are indeed looking at a totally new species, even though it is yet to be formally described or named.
With so little of the vast oceans fully explored, coupled with the illusive nature of the whales, it is not wholly surprising that a new species could have been lurking unseen. Due to their extreme diving habits, deep-sea lifestyle, and seemingly low abundance, the beaked whales are actually one of the least known groups of mammals, with quite a few species having been described within the last few decades. Currently, there are 22 described species, but only four of these have ever been studied in detail – including Baird’s – and that has often only been through commercial hunting.