A new species of whale has been identified in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Mammal Science.
The species, dubbed the Rice’s whale after American marine biologist Dale Rice, is a filter feeder that can grow up to 42 feet long and weigh over 60,000 pounds, according to The Hill.
The New York Post reports that marine biologists previously believed that Rice’s whales were a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale, but that changed in 2019 when researchers examined the skull of a Rice’s whale that washed up on a beach in Florida in 2019.
“Through some really enormous efforts of the stranding network to respond to that dead whale ... and save it and preserve it, we were finally able to look at the skull morphology and make comparisons to those other Bryde’s whales,” said Patricia Rosel, the research geneticist who led the new study (via NPR).
According to NPR, the primary distinction that Rosel’s team found between the Rice’s whale and other species was a group of unique bones positioned at the top of the skull in the Rice’s whale.
While the discovery of a new species can be exciting, the news of the Rice’s whale comes tethered with the knowledge that the species is critically endangered. The NOAA estimates that there are fewer than 100 Rice’s whales left in existence, according to The Hill.
The New York Post reports that the species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and its biggest threats include oil spills, vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, ocean noise, oceanic energy exploration and production as well as ocean debris.