New species get found every day, but usually they’re insects, or some variety of LBB (Little Brown Bird), a fern or—if you’re very, very lucky—a previously unknown shrew. But just recently, a few incredibly lucky scientists got to announce the discovery of a whole new species of whale.
Doctor Patricia Rosel and her colleague, scientist Lynsey Wilcox, first started taking a close look at a few anomalous whales in 2008. They were studying what they thought at the time were a few atypical Bryde’s whales, in a small population in the Gulf of Mexico. Looking at tissue samples obtained by NOAA, however, they soon realized that this population, while closely related to Bryde’s whale, were in fact a distinct species.
Describing a new species isn’t a swift process, especially one so highly scrutinized as a cetacean, so it took a number of years. It wasn’t until 2020 that Rosel even got to touch the object of her study—the skull of one of this species which stranded and passed away in Florida in 2019. The necropsy of the stranded whale, and detailed measurements of its remains confirmed her genetic work and put the linchpin in her discovery: these whales were something unique. The scientific community decided on a name: Balaenoptera ricei, or Rice’s whale. The late biologist Dale Rice was the first researcher to recognize that the presumed Bryde’s whales, usually only seen in the Indo-Pacific, were also found in the Gulf of Mexico off the Atlantic.
Rosel’s discovery is bittersweet. While Bryde’s whale is not regarded as endangered (The International Union for Conservation of Nature labels them “of least concern”), Rice’s whale in comparison is critically endangered. The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most heavily trafficked and developed oceans in the world, which makes it hostile to the relatively slow-moving filter-feeding mammals. There are estimated to be fewer than 100 individuals alive, from what genetics reveal had been a healthy population until recent generations.
Photo: The Rice’s whale was originally thought to be the same species as the Bryde’s whale (pictured). Credit: Shutterstock