The animal formerly known as the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale could need a new name.
The endangered whale may — upon confirmation — be an entirely new species, according to research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Scientists have long puzzled over the whales, with fewer than 100 estimated in existence, perhaps among the rarest in the world. Examination of a skeleton found off of Everglades National Park in 2019, which was later buried at Fort De Soto Park to decompose, has led to new clues.
“Even something as large as a whale can be out there and be really different from all the whales, and we don’t even know it,” said Patricia Rosel, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who led the research. “It really brings to light the urgent need of conserving and protecting these animals in the gulf, and making sure we don’t lose another marine mammal species like we already have.”
The species is considered the region’s only baleen whale, known for comb-like plates in their mouths that strain food in lieu of teeth.
The new name designation awaits recognition from a committee, in a process similar to peer review. Scientists have suggested calling the animal the Rice’s whale, after Dale Rice, a biologist who first recognized them in the gulf.
Rosel and another scientist had noticed years ago that DNA samples from the gulf whales seemed different from other Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-dus) whales, found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. But to be confident in designating a new species entirely, Rosel said, they needed to examine the whale’s skull.
That proved difficult because of how uncommon the whales — and their remains — are. They found one old specimen, from the 1950s, in a collection in Louisiana. But it was missing the crucial bones they needed for comparison. They dug up the bones from another whale at Fort De Soto, which had been killed by a boat and found floating off Tampa Bay in 2009. But the skull had been crushed. Rosel suspected the backhoe that entombed it was to blame.
Then in early 2019 came a tragic break. Someone fishing spotted an enormous dead whale floating off the Everglades.
It was 38 feet long, and scientists rushed to dissect it. They found a 3-inch piece of plastic in part of its stomach, which may have contributed to its death.
“The rarity of getting a large whale on the Gulf Coast is pretty big,” said Gretchen Lovewell, the stranding investigations program manager at Mote Marine Lab, which helped with the recovery. In her 12 years in the area, she can recall only three.
The carcass was also briefly buried at Fort De Soto Park. Later, the animal’s skeleton was brought to a Smithsonian facility outside downtown Washington D.C., where Rosel looked at the skull. She walked among 8-foot long jawbones from other whales and around a blue whale skull that reached nearly to the ceiling.
Joined by an expert from Japan, Rosel determined bones around what would have been the Gulf of Mexico animal’s blowhole were different from other Bryde’s whales.
She now believes some Bryde’s whales could have broken off years ago and evolved separately. “Possibly a group of them entered the Gulf of Mexico, became isolated and stayed there,” she said.
They would still be considered endangered even after a name change. An estimate from federal surveys in 2009 indicated there might have been just 33 alive at the time.
Baleen whales in the gulf are thought to live primarily in northern waters, in a crook of sea offshore from Alabama to roughly Sarasota.
They grow up to 60,000 pounds and reach 42 feet long, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They look a lot like Bryde’s whales. Long and slender, their throats contain grooves that stretch when they eat.
Oil drilling and boats pose some of the biggest threats to the species.
The whales may spend a lot of time swimming 50 feet or less from the surface and are sometimes “curious” in swimming close to ships, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, a federal report estimated that oil reached into about half of the whales’ estimated territory and may have contributed to cutting the population by almost a quarter.
Seismic surveys — underwater blasts of sound used to search for oil deposits — also hurt whales, which communicate with each other using low-frequency calls. Such surveys were supported late last year by federal regulators, amid outcry from environmentalists.
“We’re long overdue in grappling with the conservation threats that exist for this species,” Michael Jasny, the director of the marine mammal protection project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Michael Heithaus, a biology professor and dean at Florida International University, said the designation of a potential new species is exciting. But for researchers studying the animals like him, it’s also a reminder of how little people know about the natural world they are upending.
“Now we’ve got the responsibility,” Heithaus said, “to make sure that we don’t lose this species.”