Researchers find new whale species in Western Alaska

Researchers think they’ve found a new species of whale in Western Alaska. A new study published in Marine Mammal Science is identifying the find as a relative of the Baird’s beaked whale.

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This skeleton hanging at Unalaska High School is the only full specimen of a new species of whale, long known but only recently classified. (Photo courtesy Unalaska School District)
This skeleton hanging at Unalaska High School is the only full specimen of a new species of whale, long known but only recently classified. (Photo courtesy Unalaska School District)

It doesn’t have an official name yet. Researchers aren’t quite that far along in the process of actually cataloging a new species. But it isn’t a brand new creature, either. In fact, Japanese whalers have long called it Katasu, or raven.

Philip Morin is a molecular geneticist with NOAA. His work on the genetic level was a key in making the discovery.

“This species, the new beaked whale, has probably been around for at least several million years,” he said.

This “new” type has actually been identified before, just incorrectly. Over the years, carcasses and skeletons have simply been pegged as juvenile or dwarf Baird’s beaked whales, but they are noticeably darker in color. A closer look at the genes led Morin and the rest of the team to conclude they were really looking at something altogether different.

“We looked at Baird’s beaked whale species samples from all across the North Pacific and the amount of difference, even between animals found in Japan versus northern Mexico, was very small. Compare that to the difference between the animals that we identified as this new species, it was an order of magnitude higher. They’re much more different from each other than animals within each species,” he said.

Morin’s work was important because typically, a new species is identified through a lot of taxonomy work. Lots of physical samples are brought in and studied, the differences noted and eventually we get a new species. But specimens of this type are rare. It took a lot of detective work to find what is out there.

Paul Wade is a research biologist for NOAA’s marine mammal laboratory. He’s spent years canvassing the Bering Sea for whales and he contributed to the pool of samples used for the genetic testing.

He says this latest discovery opens the door for a lot more questions, the first of which is where exactly these small, black beaked whales live.

“Kind of from Dutch Harbor to the west and north of the Aleutian Island chain is a deep water basin in the Bering Sea. Everything going over to where you are in Dillingham is very shallow water on the Bering Sea shelf and that’s not where you would find these whales,” he said.

“But once you get past the Pribilof Islands, the shelf edge breaks off there and goes into deep water. And so maybe this is a whale that’s primarily found in that deep ocean basin in the Bering Sea there,” he added.

Research on this project started a couple years ago when one of the whales washed up onshore at St. George in the Pribilofs in June of 2014.

Shaylon Cochran is a host and reporter at KDLL in Kenai. He’s reported on fishing, energy, agriculture and local politics since coming to Alaska in 2011. He has worked at KDLL/KBBI on the Kenai Peninsula, where he picked up lots of new hobbies, like smoking salmon, raising chickens, skiing and counting RV’s. He holds a bachelors degree in Journalism from Iowa State University.

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