New Whale Subspecies Discovered

WILMINGTON, North Carolina, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - A new subspecies of Bryde’s whale has been identified in North Carolina from genetic studies of a whale carcass washed up on the beach in March.

Scientists have determined that the dead whale is a member of the baleen whale family and has a unique genetic sequence seen only in one other whale found in in 1992 in South Carolina.

This possible subspecies of Bryde’s whale seem to be unique from the other Bryde’s whales studied, according to NOAA Fisheries and scientists from a number of academic institutions.

Both Carolina samples of whale DNA appear distinct from other Bryde’s whale samples taken from the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean.


Unique whale found entangled in fishing line (Photos courtesy University of North Carolina at Wilmington)
On March 13, a beachcomber found a dead baleen whale on the shore of Carolina Beach near Wilmington. Fishing line was wrapped around its jaws preventing it from ingesting food.

Volunteers from the National Marine Mammal Stranding Network, as well as William McLellan and Ann Pabst of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and scientists from the Smithsonian Institution collected scientific samples from the whale carcass on the beach.

In the laboratory, Dave Rotstein from North Carolina State University analyzed the whale tissue samples collected and determined that the animal most likely died from starvation as a result of the line entanglement.

McLellan and Pabst led the immediate response and necropsy of this whale with assistance from local authorities.

Genetic testing conducted at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California by Rick LeDuc shows that the animal was a member of the baleen whale family known as rorquals. This whale family includes the humpback whale and the enormous blue whale.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution collected the whale's skeleton and are collaborating with other institutions in the United States and abroad to compare the skeleton with historic specimens.

Bryde’s whale is a baleen whale. It has no teeth, but in their place are two rows of baleen plates. This species was first described in 1878 based on a specimen stranded in Burma. The common name, Bryde's whale, was given in honor of Norwegian consul Johan Bryde, who built the first whaling stations in South Africa.

The Bryde's whale is unique in having three longitudinal ridges on its head. It has a prominent dorsal fin, which is relatively tall. These whales have twin blowholes with a low splash guard to the front.


Researchers examine the carcass of the beached baleen whale.
Bryde’s whales are typically tropical and subtropical species but may be found in some slightly colder waters, according to NOAA Fisheries. They feed on pelagic schooling fish, such as anchovy and herring. Bryde’s whales are active feeders and can dive for 20 minutes.

“Whales are such incredible animals, and we need to continue to learn as much as we can about them. As stewards of the environment, it is our responsibility to ensure their survival,” said Janet Whaley, a veterinarian with NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources and coordinator of the National Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Working like crime scene investigators, marine mammal scientists collect biological and genetic data from stranded animals to determine the identity and natural history of the species and to identify the cause of death.

Such stranding investigations ultimately give scientists a glimpse into the type of threats facing marine species and the overall health of the oceans.

A new federal program, funded by Congress and implemented by NOAA, the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, makes this kind of work possible by providing funds to volunteers and local communities during and after strandings.

“When we look at marine mammals and determine their overall health and some of the things that might effect that," Whaley said, "we can get clues about what might affect humans as well."