Scientists looking for rare whale stumble across entirely new species of whale

Researchers recount ‘phenomenal encounter’ while looking for the rare Perrin’s beaked whale

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 10 December 2020 12:13
Researchers believe they have found a previously unknown species of beaked whale in waters off Mexico's western coast
Researchers believe they have found a previously unknown species of beaked whale in waters off Mexico's western coast
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Scientists searching for a little-known species of beaked whale, which has only ever been found dead, believe they have stumbled across another new species of whale off Mexico’s western Pacific coast.

If confirmed, the new species would be a significant new discovery, and one among some of the planet’s largest mammals.

The research team spotted three of the whales while on the lookout for Perrin’s beaked whale, specimens of which have only ever been seen when they’ve been washed up dead on the shore.

The team, led by the non-profit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, were near Mexico's remote San Benito Islands on 17 November, when they saw the whales.

But they didn’t initially realise they were looking at what could be a previously unrecognised species.

“These animals popped to the surface right next to the boat,” Jay Barlow, a marine mammal biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego told Reuters.

“It was just a phenomenal encounter. It's very rare to even see a beaked whale, and to find a friendly group of beaked whales, it's even rarer,” he said.

It was only when they later studied the photographs they took of the animals that they realised they could be looking at a species which has never been described before.

The whales’ teeth were unusually placed, Dr Barlow said, and underwater recordings of the whales’ calls also suggested they were unique.

This potential new species both look and sound different from the approximately 23 other known species, Dr Barlow said.

Speaking to PA, Dr Barlow said: “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.”

The possibly new species of beaked whale seen from the boat

The research team took three water samples in the vicinity of the animals in hopes of getting an “environmental DNA sample from their sloughed skin cells,” which will be submitted for laboratory analysis.

This could help determine whether it is a new species.

Researchers hope to mount another trip next year to see if they can find both the new beaked whales and Perrin's beaked whale.

Beaked whales are named for their pointy, beak-like snouts, which resemble those of dolphins.

They are found mostly in remote waters, such as those off the San Benito Islands.

Despite their large size – growing up to five metres (16.4 feet) long, they can be difficult for humans to observe as they tend to swim and feed mostly at depths of over 900 metres (3,000 feet), surfacing only occasionally for air.

At such depths, the animals have a better chance of avoiding their main predator, killer whales.

Additional reporting by agencies

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