It is truly amazing that there is still so much we don’t know about whales – including the existence of a brand new species!
A study led by NOAA Fisheries scientist Dr. Patricia Rosel confirms that a population of whales living in the Gulf of Mexico is in fact a new species – and still highly endangered, with as few as 44 individuals alive today.
These whales were previously thought to be a distinct population of Bryde’s (“broodus”) whales, a medium-sized (generally speaking) baleen whale. From the skull of an individual that sadly stranded in 2019, Dr. Rosel and collaborators identified characteristics that distinguish them as a new species.
While it is always distressing when a whale strands and dies, studying them can provide an abundance of data that would otherwise be very difficult, if not impossible, to collect (such as examining a skull!). The cause of death, if determined, can also provide information on major threats impacting a population.
These whales - previously called the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale to distinguish the population and their habitat – will now be known as “Rice’s whale,” named after biologist Dale Rice, the first researcher to recognize their presence in the Gulf of Mexico. This population is one of the few groups of large whales not to take long seasonal migrations between warm and cold regions and stay year-round in one area.
Initial observations of these whales led researchers to believe that they were a rare population, initiating years of more detailed study and the collection of genetic data. This also helped confirm their status as a new species.
Rice’s whales were already listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and retain their protected status. Fewer than 100 of these whales remain, with possibly as few as 44 individuals alive.
Sadly, their core habitat overlaps with intense human use of the ocean. These whales are at risk of vessel strikes, entanglement, ingesting marine debris, and ocean noise including seismic exploration. Oil spills are also a big risk, especially in their Gulf of Mexico habitat: the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon is estimated to have killed about 17% of the population, and probably caused long-term impacts on the health and reproductive ability of these whales.