MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — After decades of research, a new species of whale has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico.
Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered that the Bryde’s whales that live in the Gulf are actually a new species now called Rice’s whale.
A couple of incidents of stranded whales allowed scientists to study them, but the breakthrough came in January 2019, when a 38-foot-long whale washed ashore in the Florida Everglades, according to Live Science. The stranding provided plenty of accurate samples that helped lead scientists to the discovery.
Unfortunately, the Rice’s whale is severely endangered. Scientists estimate around 33 of them are left on the planet. Most are concentrated in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
“Almost overnight, there is this new critically endangered species literally in the northern Gulf of Mexico,” said Mackenzie Russell, the stranding coordinator for the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Since the 1960s, researchers have noticed subtle differences in the Bryde’s whales that live in the Gulf of Mexico compared with those that live elsewhere.
“Just something a little bit different from kind of a standard of what we thought a Bryde’s whale was,” said Russell. “That had to do with skull morphology, the anatomy of the skull, and then these different feeding behaviors.”
The Bryde’s whale is known to eat mainly at the surface of the water, while the Rice’s whale dives deep to find food.
“It grows to be about 55 feet, potentially up to 30 tons, so they’re huge, as you can imagine,” Russell said. “And just like other baleen whales, they filter feed. They actually have plates called baleen that they filter feed through.”
In 2016, two fishermen found a lower jaw bone of a whale and brought it to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Researchers there are now doing genetic testing and believe the bone could belong to the new species.