NPR introduces us to a 42-foot-long stranger, the Rice’s whale. The mysterious species is large in size, but small in number, hanging out in off the Redneck Riviera and not bothering anyone except plankton:
It was only in the 1990s that scientists first determined that a small whale population was living in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico year-round. Marine biologists thought they were Bryde’s (pronounced “broodus”) whales, members of a species that lives in warm waters around the world.
Patricia Rosel, a research geneticist with NOAA Fisheries, says, “The first clue we had that there might be something unique, really more unique about them came from genetic data we collected in the mid-2000s, 15 years ago.”
That genetic data suggested this was a new species. To confirm that, Rosel and her colleagues needed morphological data — information showing that the skulls of the whales in the Gulf were different from those of their close relatives. They finally got that in 2019 when a whale was stranded in southwest Florida.
The main difference that Rosel found is a group of bones at the top of the skull, which distinguishes Rice’s whales from other species. Rosel and her colleagues published their findings recently in Marine Mammal Science. The whale is named for Dale Rice, the marine mammal biologist who first identified the population in the Gulf.