Alaska students help scientists prove mysterious whale species exists

Courtesy Karin Holser, St. George Island Institute
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) There was something strange about the whale that washed ashore St. George Island a couple summers ago, strange enough for the group that spotted the decomposing 24-foot cetacean to tip off scientists and later to help track its location for months as Bering Sea storms pushed and pulled it along the coast.

Reactions from curious students and tribal leaders to the presence of the mysterious beaked whale -- covered with cookie-cutter scars, little more than remnants of its black epidermal layer clinging to exposed blubber -- is what eventually allowed researchers to confirm a longstanding theory: that whales like this are not dwarf versions of Baird's beaked whale but instead are a distinct species.

DNA evidence confirmed the rare finding of a new species of whale, and the specimen from the remote island gave corporeal proof of differences from its well-document cousin. A cohort of scientists that includes University of Alaska Southeast researchers published the discovery Tuesday in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Baird's beaked whales, named for the nineteenth century naturalist Spencer F. Baird, have a grayish hue. They are among the most prevalent of 22 beaked whale species, many of which have a countenance not unlike a bottlenose dolphin. Baird adults span 42 feet from head to fluke and weigh as much as 24,000 pounds.

That is a fraction of behemoth whales like bowheads or fins, somewhat closer in stature to orcas. But compared to the giants, Baird's are expert divers and have reached record depths for any mammal: thousands of feet beneath the surface, with the ability to stay submerged for and breathlesss for hours while hunting squid, octopus, and deep sea fishes in underwater canyons. To help catch prey, males have one or two pairs of teeth that protrude from their bottom jaws, resembling boar tusks.

While the whale that washed up on St. George may seem like a dark-skinned juvenile Baird's whale to the untrained eye, in fact, there are big differences. The St. George specimen had yellowed teeth suggesting it was an adult. Yet it was half the size of a mature Baird's whale, and the jet black skin was a genetically significant distinction.

"The (St. George) whale did not match descriptions for the Baird's," said Michelle Ridgway, an Alaska marine ecologist who specializes in deep water research, including in the Bering Sea. "Nor did it match the Stejeger's beaked whale, or any beaked whale described anywhere."

Japanese whalers for decades have spoken of "karasu," the word for raven, a mysterious black whale that traverses North Pacific waters. Scientists had never observed the new species alive. Photographs and videos have not been captured. Until the Alaska sample, there were only skeletons -- like the one hanging above a gymnasium in Unalaska -- and partial samples to confirm the existence of a distinct species.

“The challenge in documenting the species was simply locating enough specimens to provide convincing evidence,” said Phillip Morin, a research molecular biologist at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lead author of the new study. “Clearly this species is very rare, and reminds us how much we have to learn about the ocean and even some of its largest inhabitants.”

Eight examples of the new species were found. They originate from an area around northern Japan and the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, suggesting that the species has a smaller range than Baird’s beaked whale which have been observed as far south as California. However, the St. George specimen had cookie-cutter marks that seem consistent with the bite of a tropical shark, so the new species may in fact migrate to tropical waters.

“As much as we know about the genetic heritage of this animal," Morin said in a news release, "we still do not know very much about the animal itself. We can draw some indications from what we know about other beaked whales in terms of its range and behavior, but we still have many more questions than answers.”

Many of the answers about this new species would have remained elusive if not for help from high school students in the island community with a population of about 100.

Serge Lekanof saved the whale's skull, a key piece of evidence, from being lost to the waves.

Will Lekanof searched for the whale while it washed ashore and back out to sea during the summer of 2014, and in August, he filmed the degraded body in detail. He represented the Pribilof Science Camp with several other kids in New York, where he presented the finding in New York to the Explorers Club and later helped Smithsonian researchers measure and compare it to known beaked whale species.

Carmen Philemonof, while home from Mt. Edgecumbe High School during summer break, also made it to New York and shared the whale's skull with Smithsonian, where the specimen is held in the institute's archives.

Several other St. George students and tribal leaders played a key role.

"In the last 200 years, humans have scoured what we think to be every corner of the ocean. Yet somehow there's been this mystery whale out there," Ridgway said.