Story at a glance
- A whale previously thought to be a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale is actually a new species entirely.
- Researchers were able to identify differences in the whale’s skull that set the subspecies apart from other closely related baleen whale species.
- Researchers named the new species Rice’s whale, after American biologist Dale Rice, who was the first researcher to recognize that the species is present in the Gulf of Mexico.
A new species of baleen whale has been identified in the Gulf of Mexico.
Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper earlier this month in Marine Mammal Science explaining that a whale previously thought to be a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale is actually a new species entirely.
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Bryde’s whales live in the warm waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and are closely related to the blue and humpback whale.
Patricia Rosel, a research geneticist with NOAA Fisheries who led the study, said genetic data gathered from the newly discovered species in the early 2000s hinted at a divergent evolutionary lineage, but more concrete evidence came after researchers were able to examine the skull of the species that washed up on a Florida beach in 2019.
Researchers were able to identify differences in the whale’s skull that set the subspecies apart from other closely related baleen whale species.
“The morphological differences, when combined with the genetic data Rosel and Wilcox had collected, were enough to distinguish this as a new species of baleen whale,” NOAA said.
Researchers named the new species Rice’s whale, after American biologist Dale Rice, who was the first researcher to recognize that the species are present in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rice’s whales are filter feeders that can weigh up to 60,000 pounds and grow up to 42 feet long. NOAA estimates there are fewer than 100 of these whales remaining, making them critically endangered. The species retains its protected status under the Endangered Species Act as it was previously listed as an endangered subspecies when it was mistaken as a type of Bryde’s whale.
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