New whale species named in Gulf is ‘critically endangered,’ scientists say

Reporter: Stephanie Byrne Writer: Jack Lowenstein
NOAA’s Dr. Patricia Rosel examines Rice’s whale type specimen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Credit: NOAA.

An individual whale that has been studied in Florida over the last two years is part of a small group being named a new species. Where the sea creature was found sets it apart from similar animals.

Rice’s whale is a newly-named species of fewer than 100 baleen whales found in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.

Researchers have been keeping tabs on these whales since the 1990s but discovered there was something genetically different about these particular whales in the mid-2000s.

Thanks to a whale found stranded in the Everglades a couple years ago, research scientists got the confirmation they needed to call these sea mammals a new species of whale.

“If we were able to discover this unidentified whale species in the Gulf of Mexico, it shows there’s so much more we don’t know,” said Lynsey Wilcox, a research geneticist with NOAA.

Wilcox will tell you there’s still a lot to learn about the wildlife in our oceans.

“It was really exciting to make that discovery, mainly because I hope that this will bring more attention to the species in the Gulf and lead to more protection,” Wilcox said.

With NOAA leading the way, several organizations including the nonprofit Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder helped with a large whale stranding in Everglades National Park stranded in January 2019.

“We were surprised,” said Steve McCulloch, the director of stranding investigations for DPMMR. “And you know, to see that the work that we’re doing on the frontlines translates to management yield for resource managers, and here, we have a new species of whale. It’s fantastic.”

By looking at the skull of a stranded whale, it confirmed genetic data NOAA already had for a particular population of whales in the Gulf that have now become the Rice’s whale.

“The population is very small, and there’s less than 100 individuals left, so that makes this species critically endangered,” Wilcox explained.

Since these whales are found in a specific portion of the northeastern Gulf, “It’s really important that we protect that habitat,” Wilcox said.

Researchers shared the skeleton of the whale that was stranded with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. They believe the whale died from ingesting plastic.

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