Scientists have proven a mammal that was believed to be a whale subspecies is actually a new species entirely, and the new species is critically endangered.
Researchers took a closer look at the skeleton, specimens and genetic data of what had been identified as the Gulf of Mexico subspecies of the Bryde’s whale. They published their findings this month in Marine Mammal Science.
Bryde’s whales are found in warm waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. They are closely related to the blue whale and humpback whale.
The researchers, who work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, started believing they may have identified a new species back in 2008 when they examined genetic data from samples collected on NOAA vessels in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to NOAA, the researchers noticed the genetic data was “quite different from other whales.”
Their work took a big leap forward last year, when they were able to examine a skull from the species after one of the mammals became stranded on the Florida coast in 2019. The team was able to identify morphological differences that set the subspecies apart from its closest relatives.
“The morphological differences, when combined with the genetic data (Dr. Patricia) Rosel and (Lynsey) Wilcox had collected, were enough to distinguish this as a new species of baleen whale,” NOAA said.
They named the new species Rice’s whale, after American biologist Dale Rice who was one of the first to recognize the mammals in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The process of formally describing a new species takes research, time, collaborations, and reviews by a number of scientific peers. Once a scientist is able to collect sufficient evidence to describe a new species, that species receives a Latin name and a ‘common name.’ The Latin name for Rice’s whale is Balaenoptera ricei,” NOAA stated.
NOAA says the Gulf of Mexico subspecies of Bryde’s whale was already protected as an endangered species. It was added to the list in 2019, at which time scientists said they believed there were fewer than 100 of the subspecies in existence.
Now that it has been identified as a separate species, Rice’s whale, it is still protected as an endangered species. The name will officially be changed once the Society for Marine Mammalogy Committee on Taxonomy formally accepts it.
NOAA says Rice’s whales can weigh up to 60,000 pounds and grow to be up to 42 feet long. At this time, they have only been identified in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rice’s whale, and the NOAA research work is different from another possible new species of whale identified at the end of last year off the west coast of Mexico. In December, researchers with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society announced they had captured audio and video of a previously unknown species of beaked whale.