New Species of Beaked Whale Discovered in Alaska

DNA analysis and a washed up corpse confirm this a new dark-colored species of beaked whale

Whale Skeleton
The skeleton of a new species of beaked whale in Unalaska high school Unalaska City School District

This week a team of researchers unveiled a new species of beaked whale and decribed their find in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

A local monitoring group discovered the corpse of the new species in June, 2014 on a beach at St. George Island, a tiny member of the remote Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, Craig Welch reports for National Geographic. The group that found the whale's remains contacted authorities, and soon Juneau marine ecologist Michelle Ridgway, who was already on the island, came to investigate.

The whale is only about two-thirds the size of the local Baird’s beaked whale. Its yellowed and worn teeth suggest that it isn't a juvenile. Its dorsal fin and darker skin also distinguish it from other beaked whales, reports Yereth Rosen at Alaska Dispatch News

“[Michelle] was the one who said, ‘This looks like a Baird's beaked whale, but it doesn’t,’” Philip Morin, a molecular geneticist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and lead author of the study tells Rosen. When Morin received tissue samples and tested the whale's DNA, it turned out to be a species never described before.

In fact, Morin had already been on the hunt for the mystery cetacean. In 2013, Japanese researchers published a paper about a small, black beaked whale that Japanese fisherman call karasu, or the raven, Welch reports. No scientist had ever seen the live whales, which were occasionally reported in Japan’s Nemuro Strait. Analysis of tissue from three suspected karasu that washed up in Hokkaido was also inconclusive.

New Whale
Illustration of what the new beaked whale species looks like Uko Gorter/Natural History Illustration

To figure the mystery out, Morin had started analyzing tissue from 178 other samples collected from beaked whales in the Pacific Rim. But then he received the sample from St. George Island. It turned out eight of the samples he tested came from the new species, including a whale skeleton collected in 1948 that is currently housed in the Smithsonian Marine Mammal Collection and other samples at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

One of the best examples was found in Unalaska, a town in the Aleutian Islands. In 2004, Rosen reports, what was believed to be a Baird’s beaked whale washed ashore there. Its skeleton was eventually hung in the local high school. DNA analysis revealed it to also be the new species.

“It’s a really big deal,” study co-author Paul Wade of NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory tells Welch. “If you think about it, on land, discovery of new species of large mammals is exceptionally rare. It just doesn't happen very often. It’s quite remarkable.”

The DNA of the new cetacean is more closely related to a Southern Hemisphere species, Arnoux's beaked whale, than Baird’s beaked whale, which lives in northern waters. In fact, scars on the whale from tropical sharks indicate that it migrates south like many other beaked whales.

If any whale has evaded detection, it’s not surprising that it’s a beaked whale. The 22-species group typically hunts squid and bottom fish in deep underwater canyons, and new species have been found throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In 2014, Deraniyagala’s beaked whale was confirmed as a new species, and last year researchers in Antarctica recorded unidentified whale song from what they believe is another undiscovered beaked whale species.

The new species from Alaska has not been officially accepted by taxonomists and has yet to be formally named. The researchers have suggested Berardius beringiae to honor the sea where it was found.

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