Scientists are struggling to categorize this new species that was previously thought to be folklore.
In the small Alaskan community of St. George, life is quiet and predictable, set against the backdrop of lush green hills and the Bering Sea. No one was prepared for a 24 feet (7.3 meters) long corpse to wash up on shore. A young biology teacher made the discovery on a windswept beach and immediately alerted a former seal researcher.
Initially, they concluded this was Baird’s beaked whale, but upon closer inspection, it simply wasn’t possible. The dorsal fin was too big, the body too short, the skin too dark. It turned out this was an entirely new species of black cetacean, that had yet to be identified or classified. While it has been placed in the genus Beradius, it looks very different from its nearest relative and other marine mammals of the North Pacific.
“It’s just so exciting to think that in 2016 we’re still discovering things in our world—even mammals that are more than 20 feet long,” said researcher Phillip Morin to National Geographic. “We don’t know how many there are, where they’re typically found, anything… But we’re going to start looking.” Morin works as a molecular geneticist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
Researchers took bone powder from old museum skeletons of whales, and reviewed DNA, hoping to find genetic clues. They believe the whale may also have inhabit Japan, where fishermen have referred to it as karasu, meaning raven. Japanese researchers have speculated about their existence, but no scientist had ever seen one alive. ”They’re almost folklore,” said Morin. They also explored beaked whales that swim in the Antarctic but concluded that the new species is distinct.
Morin, along with 16 co-authors, has published their research on the new species in the journal, Marine Mammals Science. The article is titled “Genetic structure of the beaked whale genus Berardius in the North Pacific, with genetic evidence for a new species”.
“It boggles my mind to think that a large, very different-looking whale has gone unnoticed by the scientific community for so long,” said Robert Pitman of the Society of Marine Mammalogy. “It sends a clear message about how little we know about what is in the ocean around us.”
Morin laments the irreparable environmental crime committed every day, in a world we still have not had the opportunity to completely explore.
”We’re doing increasing damage to our environment, and we can’t even begin to conserve the biodiversity we know is out there,” Morin said. “Yet there’s so much more about our world we don’t even understand.”