• Damon Swisher

BREAKING: New Species of Whale Discovered

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

According to a recent press release by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a new species of whale has been discovered off the western coast of Mexico, near the San Benito islands - an island range located about 300 miles from the U.S.-California border. Click to tweet!

Sea Shepherd received some interesting underwater acoustic signals from the San Benito islands - acoustic signals that had never been recorded before. All species of whale have their own distinct set of sounds, and acoustic matching is frequently used to identify whale species; but what happens when you pick up a sound that no one has ever heard before? In Sea Shepherds case, they decided to send a crew to check it out and find the source of the sound. They never expected to discover a new species in the process.

The Sound of a New Species

If the sound was previously unidentified, then why were the scientists so surprised to find a new species? Wouldn't it seem that a new sound and new species go hand in hand?

Well, the group of researchers, which included Jay Barlow, Elizabeth Henderson, and Gustavo Cardenas Hinojosa (a beaked whale expert) matched the sound to a likely candidate; the Perrins Beaked Whale. In 2018, they received a prior set of unidentified acoustic signals from the San Benito islands which the researchers expected to be from the Perrins Beaked Whale - so in their recent pursuit, this is what they expected to find. The Perrins Beaked Whale is an extremely rare type of whale characterized by only six specimens, many of which were observed in a stranding (carcasses washed up on shore); a species with an incredibly small amount of data and information - a problem that is unfortunately not uncommon when dealing with marine sciences.

So, when the research team arrived on site, they were pleasantly shocked and surprised to see what was there to greet them; three friendly, unidentified beaked whales! According to the scientists, the whales approached the ship up to three times, which made it easy for them to record data. Aside from the sightings of the beaked whales, the scientists were able to record acoustic data, take photographs and video, and collect genetic samples. The experts claim to easily be able to confirm, based on morphology and acoustics, that the whales are a new species - however, to be perfectly clear, genetic testing on the samples will need to be conducted to classify and describe the new species. These samples were taken as eDNA - a new, fancy technique in which gallons of the surrounding water is captured and filtered for bits of DNA which can then be cross-checked against the DNA of known species. As Sea Shepherd is known for their care for whales and other marine mammals, this is the best method for them to use as it poses no risk to the specimen.

To hear it from the researchers, “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,” said Dr. Jay Barlow. “It just sends chills up and down my spine when I think that we might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible – finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science.”

As the scientific name has not yet been given, the common name is up to the general public. Common names are given to a species of fish, usually based on looks, and usually have nothing to do with the scientific name - TheVast supports the suggested name "Fortune Whale", because they may be a sign of good fortune riding the waves at the end of the notorious year, 2020! They may truly be a whale of fortune. What do you think they should be named? Do you like the name Fortune Whale? Let us know on Twitter!

Echolocation and Sonar Among Cetaceans

Whales, and all cetaceans, have distinct and unique acoustic signals that they use for communication and echolocation. The water is a much different medium than air, so these tools allow the species to thrive in their harsh environment.

Toothed whales, of which the beaked whales fit into, are known as Odontocetes and they produce a sound that can be described as a click - very piercing - for their survival, navigation, and reproduction. A notable example would be dolphins, which most people may be familiar with. The odontocete whale uses air (sometimes recycled) to produce the sounds, pushing it through the phonic lips (located above the head) which contract and compress to cause vibrations in the membrane, which then passes into the melon (the bulbous protrusion of the whale's forehead; again think dolphin) which condenses, shapes, and projects the vibrations into the water like a beam. Pretty incredible, right? Sonar in the Navy works in a similar way. A great example of how the natural world can inform human mechanics and developments to increase our potential or lead to more innovation.

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