Charlotte Amalie 𑁋 In 2019, a deceased 38-foot baleen whale washed ashore near the Florida everglades. Now, researchers believe the individual may be a member of a previously unidentified species of large whale. The brand new species, known as Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei), adds another element of mystery to Earth’s oceans, which covers more than seventy percent of the planet’s surface.
An autopsy revealed a 3-inch hunk of plastic lodged in its gut that may have contributed to its death.
Dale Rice, a marine mammal scientist who has seen a 60-year career, recognized that a small population of whales lived in the Gulf of Mexico’s northeastern part in the 1990s. At first, researchers documenting whales in the Gulf assumed that they were a sub-population of Bryde’s whales, reports Greg Allen for NPR.
The groundbreaking discovery comes as the scientific community continues probing maritime noise produced by busy shipping lanes and dive deeper into how ocean pollution affects different marine life forms. More than a decade after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, considered to be the largest marine oil spill in the petroleum industry’s history, studies conducted by researchers documenting humpback whales say their blowholes don’t keep seawater out.
The new research shows the blowhole isn’t as protective as scientists once thought, leaving room for pollutants to enter a whale’s respiratory tract and lungs. Scientists believe that there are an estimated 100 members of the newly discovered whale species living today.
In 2008, curious NOAA scientists conducted a genetic analysis using tissue samples from the elusive Gulf population. The tissue samples collected concluded that the whales living in the Gulf were, in fact, genetically distinct from Bryde’s whales.
But scientists were not able to confirm the new species until they could document a skull. After recovering the massive whale carcass near the Florida everglades in 2019, scientists buried the specimen for several weeks to allow it time to decay fully.
Rice’s whales are already considered endangered by the United States. The whales, listed under the Endangered Species Act as a population of Bryde’s whales in April 2019, and the discovery that they are a distinct species is unlikely to change much – other than requiring an update to their name.