Astrange noise recorded in 2018 in the depths of the Pacific Ocean near Mexico’s San Benito Islands may belong to a species of beaked whale that hasn’t been documented before, according to a team of scientists working with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
“We saw something new. Something that was not expected in this area, something that doesn’t match, either visually or acoustically, anything that is known to exist,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist Jay Barlow, who was a member of the team that discovered the whales, says in a statement released by Sea Shepherd on December 8.
Beaked whales produce loud echolocation clicks to navigate and forage, but the clicks that the team heard had an unusual acoustic profile: they peaked at a different frequency and had a distinctive upsweep, Elizabeth Henderson, a Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific bioacoustics scientist and another scientist on the team, tells The Scientist.
Henderson, Barlow, and their colleagues set out on a cruise on November 17 to see if the 2018 sounds were linked to the elusive Perrin’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon perrini), which was first described in 2002 and has only been found stranded and dead on the coastline. Not only did the researchers find the creatures that made the noise, but they stumbled across three of them, all alive.
The whales had distinct physical characteristics from the Perrin’s beaked whale. For one, the whales’ teeth were farther back in the mouth, they had a darker coloration band from their eyes to top of their head, and a light streak from their stomachs to midway up their bodies.
“The fact that they were looking for a very rare whale, and that they happen to find something completely different, is remarkable and wonderful, and just the joy of doing science,” Andrew Read, a marine biologist at Duke University who was not involved with the sighting, tells Reuters. “That’s what we all live for.”
Based on her observations, Henderson says it appears that these whales belong to the Mesoplodon genus and may be closely related to the Perrin’s and Blainville’s beaked whales. The researchers tried to collect skin cell samples from the surrounding water to analyze the whales’ DNA, which would confirm if the whales are, indeed, a novel species, she says.
“This is pretty significant,” Henderson tells The Scientist. “Most other new species of whale that have been described in the last 20 years have been whales that were already known to exist and were already seen, but new evidence came to light that made a determination that split them from where they were already classified.” In this case, it appears that the whales had not even been observed by scientists before.
Currently, there are 23 known beaked whale species, and Barlow is “cautiously optimistic” that there will soon be 24. “It is a huge animal, the weight of a Clydesdale horse. Imagine something that big in the terrestrial realm going undiscovered,” Barlow tells Reuters.