New species of beaked whale found

It’s been a while since I last posted (I’ve been busy with various things over the last few months), so here’s a story that caught my interest when I read it last year: A new species of whale that has never been seen alive…

In 2013, researchers were surprised to find a group of small, black Beaked whales wash ashore in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Now washed up whales aren’t really an uncommon occurrence, but the really unusual thing here was that the scientists couldn’t really tell what species these whales were. They looked a bit like Baird’s Beaked Whale, a widespread but rare species of the North Pacific (and the largest species of Beaked Whale), but they seemed a bit too small and dark. But for the time being, the biologists figured they were just unusual looking Baird’s Beaked Whales and moved on.

Then a year later, another strange beaked whale was found on St. George Island, in the Pribilofs of Alaska, past the Aleutians and close to Russia in the Bering Sea. Two strange whales in two completely different places was now too much of a coincidence. Researchers, led by Phil Morin of the NOAA, began testing genetic samples from purported “Baird’s Beaked Whales” from all over the Pacific, from offshore California to the Kuril Islands of the Russian Far East. What they found was fascinating–two different species within the samples that were as distinct from each other as the Baird’s Beaked Whale is from the Arnoux’s Beaked Whale, its Antarctic relative. In the end, the samples fell into two categories: conventional Baird’s Beaked Whales (Berardius bairdii), and another group of unidentified Berardius, that closely corresponded to the smaller, blackish, morphologically distinct animals–a new species. The new, unidentified beaked whales appeared to have a relatively restricted geographical range encompassing the Pribilofs of Alaska, the Kuril Islands of Russia, and the Northern coast of Japan.

Beached Karasu Beaked Whale in the Pribilofs (photograph: Karin Holser/National Geographic)

But further investigation revealed that while these whales were new to science, they were well-known to people living in its native range. For decades, whaling captains from Hokkaido spoke of two distinct beaked whales–the larger, grayish, and more common Baird’s Beaked Whales; and the small, black, and very rare “karasu,” or “raven” beaked whale, named for its dark coloration, lighter build and pointed beak. Yet another piece of evidence that native people are often critically important to the research and conservation of rare wildlife around the world.

Since then, potential sightings have slowly streamed in, most notably a possible observation from the Kuril Islands last fall. However, as genetic sampling has never been conducted on these live animals, a confirmed individual has still never been seen alive… As more researchers search for this species in its native range, who knows what they will find!

Possible Karasu Beaked Whale in the Kuril Islands (photograph: Olga Filatova)

But I think this points to a larger trend: we are only starting to uncover the richness and diversity of our marine mammal fauna, beaked whales in particular. Anyone who has spent time searching for these animals on the open ocean will know exactly what I mean. I can relate to this through an experience last November, when the captain on my whale watching trip spotted a possible beaked whale far offshore Monterey; by the time he called out the sighting, the animal disappeared, leaving everyone wondering as to its identity and questioning whether a whale even surfaced at all!

Beaked whales are fascinating–rare and elusive, still so little-known. Certainly we have a lot to learn about these incredible and tough (they can stay underwater for up to 2 hours!) animals, perhaps maybe even discovering a few more new species of them along the way. Personally, I find it amazing that such large new mammal species continue to be discovered to science in the 21st century: clearly a sign that we should strive to study and protect these species and places before it’s too late. I for one hope to continue searching for marine mammals, not just in California but in remote, deep waters around the world–maybe one day I’ll finally see my Beaked whale.