New species of whale includes "traditional" naming by carrying an Indigenous name and the name of a woman scientist.
When a pregnant beaked whale stranded in New Zealand in 2011, an external examination identified her as a True’s beaked whale. Very little is known about beaked whales, and very few species have actually been seen alive.
This whale was named Nihongore by the local tribe of Ngāti Māhaki and her skeleton was preserved at the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum with the help of a Ramari Stewart, a Mātauranga Māori whale expert. Ramari Stewart noticed something different about Nihongore.
Along with her collaborator Dr. Emma Carroll, the New Zealand team worked to compare other samples of True’s beaked whales from both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, and realized that the True’s beaked whales in the Southern Hemisphere had very different genetics and skull shapes – two key indicators that they were a different species.
This remarkable discovery is a result of bringing together Indigenous knowledge and practitioners with Western science, and learning from the traditions and history that Indigenous people have with nature.
Many Māori tribes have deep cultural connections to whales and often view them as sacred. Collecting information from stranded marine mammals is critically important to understanding not only what distinguishes species – and maybe identifying a brand new one! – but also what threats they face, when they are in certain areas, and how far they range.
In New Zealand, responses to stranded marine mammals are done in consultation with local tribes to develop and follow cultural protocols.
In honor of this finding, Nihongore and other “Southern Ocean True’s beaked whales” are now recognized as a new species and named after Ramari Stewart: Ramari’s beaked whale.
In further recognition of the role of indigenous people in this discovery, the scientific name for these whales is Mesoplodon eueu: “eueu” means “big fish” in the Khwedam language of the Khoisan peoples of South Africa, where other whales were found that helped distinguish this new species.
With most “new” whale species named after white male Western scientists, the Ramari’s beaked whale is a welcome new approach to naming a species. Appropriately, “Ramari” means “rare event” in the Māori language.
“This species is remarkable both in its unique attributes and its name.” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, WDC-NA Executive Director. “It is not only rare to discover new whale species but even more rare to name them after women and honor the indigenous peoples whose coastlines are visited by these amazing creatures”