Juneau scientist helps discover new whale species

• Mysterious beaked whale washed up on Pribilof Islands is 1 of only 8 known specimens • Michelle Ridgway, St. George community collect crucial tissue samples leading to discovery

When a mysterious beaked whale washed ashore on St. George Island in June 2014, Michelle Ridgway was already on her way there. Ridgway, a marine ecologist with Oceanus Alaska, has spent the past decade traveling to the Pribilof Islands conducting research.

 

Now, she’s co-author of a paper published Tuesday in the Marine Mammal Science Journal that describes the genetics of a new species of whale found in the North Pacific. That whale found two years ago in Alaska was key to the discovery.

It’s one of only eight known specimens of the new whale species in the world — five in Alaska, three in Japan. All of them were found dead.

“The ocean is vast and the depths of the ocean are relatively unexplored, and these deep diving species are virtually unknown,” Ridgway said at her Auke Bay office Friday. “And here we have a new species and we’ve never even seen it alive.”

Beaked whales are long and tube-shaped, often measuring more than 20 feet in length. They have beaks, big melon heads, hang out in deep canyons and feed on squid. They can spend an hour and a half underwater and surface for just a few minutes.

There are three common types of beaked whales in Alaska, according to Kate Wynne’s, “Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska”: Baird’s Beaked Whale, Stejneger’s Beaked Whale and Cuvier’s Beaked Whale.

The 24-foot adult male that washed up on St. George Island most closely resembled the Baird’s, but there were key differences. It was smaller than a Baird’s, the dorsal fin was larger and further forward, its teeth were configured differently and the shape of the melon and beak seemed different than others found in Alaska.

And this whale was black.

“Baird’s is uniformly slate grey,” Ridgway said.

There’s long been a hunch in Japan that this whale was different, but there was no scientific proof.

“Because of its black color, for many decades the Japanese have called them black Baird’s or the raven Baird’s,” she said.

The new species is unnamed. Since the discovery was made by a large international team, Ridgway said the naming will be a group effort, but she has two suggestions — Berardius ‘beringiae,’ or Beringian beaked whale; and Berardius ‘baracki,’ or Barack’s beaked whale.

The first name refers to where the Alaska specimens were found. They likely occupied the deep canyon waters off the Bering Land Bridge, which connects Asia and North America — the regions where the scientists involved live. The second name would be a nod to America’s first black president Barack Obama who, Ridgway said, has advanced bridging communities and ocean conservation.

Vanishing act

Like most scientific discoveries, determining this whale was genetically different than others did not happen overnight. Just the process of getting the key tissue samples was a big endeavor.

Residents of St. George Island first spotted the mysterious whale washed ashore on Zapadni Bay June 18, 2014. Community members and students took photos and measurements, but it wasn’t secured.

“This animal washed in, washed out, washed in, vanished for weeks at a time. We had to do a lot of tracking, searching the island by boat, hiking, and otherwise looking down these renowned cliffs of St. George Island trying to find this whale,” Ridgway said.

Days, weeks, two months passed.

“We thought it was gone,” she said. “I was contemplating a dive expedition but it was so rough, I had to dismiss it as a possibility. And then it said, ‘I am here. Take me if you will.’”

A team of Japanese birders, while suspended on cliffs, smelled something ripe and notified the whale search team, who hustled out there.

“We found it unfortunately far from a nice sandy beach, in a really rugged lava boulder beach,” Ridgway described.

By that time the whale had been exposed to rough Bering Sea waves.

“It appeared that things had been feeding on it and it had had a rough life underwater. Fortunately, the head was still just barely connected by tissue, but had been severed and removed and was lying next to the body.”

The team was able to retrieve the skull and enough tissue to run a DNA analysis. The tissue was sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s genetics lab in San Diego and it matched the seven other specimens of the mysterious black beaked whale. They were distinctly unique from other beaked whales analyzed for mitochondrial DNA — the key in differentiating species.

‘Wild deep blue world’

Ridgway said she’s thrilled to be part of the discovery and happy she got to share in the experience with the people of St. George Island. The St. George Traditional Council offered to share the skull with the Smithsonian Institute, where it’s currently housed with two other skulls of the new species.

But Ridgway is a marine ecologist, not a marine mammal biologist. She wants to see this new species alive in its home, not washed up dead.

“I won’t feel I have fully contributed to understanding this creature until I conduct in situ observations of the new Berardius alive, in its natural deep sea habitat,” she said. “What we learn from dead or captured animals can be informative about their morphology and body condition, and can provide clues to how they make their living. Observing them diving, foraging, rearing young in their wild deep blue world provides tremendous insight on their behavior and role in the vast marine ecosystem we share.”

Remaining a mystery

Besides “Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska,” Kate Wynne has written the “Guide to Marine Mammals and Turtles of the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico” and the “Guide to Marine Mammals and Turtles of the U.S. Pacific.”

She helped connect Ridgway and her St. George team to beaked whale experts. While a new whale species discovery is exciting, Wynne said it’s not unexpected in the beaked whale world.

“They’re such unique animals and their habitat is so far offshore and in deep canyons, people don’t see them alive,” she said. “We just know so little about even the animals we see a lot that I guess it’s not terribly surprising there are other species.”

Wynne said it’s too early to add this new species to her field guides, although she hopes to one day. She said there’s still so much unknown about them, like their distribution, what they eat, what they look like alive.

“We see Baird’s Beaked Whales out in Dutch Harbor fairly frequently. But now we might be looking at that a lot more closely and trying to figure out if you can actually see their teeth while they’re swimming or estimate their size and we might be able to figure out it’s the new species,” Wynne said.

She thinks there are more large whales to be discovered.

“Beaked whales are in parts of the ocean that humans don’t go or see them very often. You only get a glimpse of these animals when they’re alive. I’m sure there are more out there.”

Ridgway wants this new discovery to spur others.

“Hopefully getting the word out about this new one will also encourage people to document when they see something that looks a little different. There are fishermen out there, there are hunters out there, there are ecologists, there are tourists and people that can all be part of this discovery of a new species that we share the world's ocean with.”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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