UNCW marine mammal team plays role in identifying previously unknown whale species, 17 years later

UNCW marine mammal team plays role in identifying previously unknown whale species, 17 years later

CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - All the way back in 2003 two members of the UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Team were called to Carolina Beach to check out a whale that had washed ashore - when they got there - they realized it was something they had never seen before.

Now, more than 17 years later, it turns out they were right.

“The sub-adult male was confirmed to be a member of a previously undiscovered species of baleen whale that lives in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico and traverses the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. In January 2021, NOAA researchers Patricia Rosel, Lynsey Wilcox, Keith Mullin and Tadasu Yamada of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science published a paper identifying the tentatively named Rice’s Whale as a separate species,” according to a UNCW press release.

New species are not particularity unusual, however, identifying one that large is.

“Pabst, professor of biology and marine biology, and McLellan, a researcher and director of the UNCW-based Marine Mammal Stranding Program, have collectively responded to thousands of cetacean strandings over the years. Both study marine mammals and have engaged hundreds of students through their active involvement in the stranding program. Students are an integral part of the team,” according to the release.

Samples of the whale from Carolina Beach were sent to a lab in La Jolla, Calif. where it was identified as a new species of Bryde’s Whale.

“Students and volunteers, working with the Town of Carolina Beach, buried the entire skeleton onsite so that later it could be exhumed and collected by colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History,” according to the release.

It might seem like a long time to take to identify a species, but it’s not unusual.

“The process for identifying a new species is complicated and can take many years. In 2014, Rosel and Wilcox concluded that a group of whales living in the Gulf of Mexico belonged to an evolutionarily distinct lineage of Bryde’s whale, which lives in temperate to tropical waters around the world. Six years later, Rice’s whale was identified as a separate species altogether,” according to the release.

The whale is a baleen whale, which means they strain their food from see water.

“This is a species of which there are very few individuals,” noted Pabst. Fewer than 50 are believed to exist.

“The UNCW team’s response to the 2003 stranding was one of the first under a grant through NOAA’s newly developed Prescott Stranding Assistance Program. Although their work with the stranding team involves necropsies and related research, the goal of the research is conservation and management of species and their habitats,” said McLellan.

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