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Discovery of a New Whale: Exploring the Endangered Species

A relatively new species of whale, Rice’s whale, was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in 2021. Biologist Dale Rice discovered this distinct species, hence the name. However, these species have also been discovered to be Earth’s most endangered whale. What’s the population of these whales? How are they a different species? This article will answer these questions and more.

Where the Rice’s whales were found

This new whale species has been located in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, along the continental shelf break, with a depth of between 100 and 400 meters.

Courtesy: Yourweather.co.uk

Research shows these whales have been in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico for the past 25 years. Although their distribution may occasionally include waters in other areas in the Gulf of Mexico, they don’t make long-distance migrations.

How they differ from other species

As members of the baleen family, Rice’s whales swallow large amounts of water and strain it through baleen plates that hang inside their mouths to catch prey. While this is a common attribute of baleen whales, Rice’s whales also have distinct features.

Courtesy: Marine Mammal Commission

They have a sleek body with slender, pointed pectoral fins, a broad fluke (tail), and a pointed, strongly hooked dorsal fin. They are dark gray on top, while their bellies are pale to pink. Rice’s whales have three prominent ridges in front of their blowholes; their heads make up about ¼ of their total body length.

Their diet and reproduction

They don’t feed on schooling fish near the surface like Bryde’s whales. Rice’s whales seek out food and eat at or near the seafloor; research is still being conducted to learn more about their foraging diet and ecology.

Courtesy: The-triton.com

Based on data from closely related whales, Rice’s whales may be pregnant for 10 to 12 months, with calves nursing up to 12 months. They probably reach maturity at the age of 9 and mate throughout the year.

Their endangerment numbers

Rice’s whales are at a high risk of going extinct. An extensive status review in 2016 concluded that there were possibly less than 100 Rice’s whales throughout the Gulf, with 50 being mature whales. 

Courtesy: Smithsonian Magazine

Recent surveys between 2017 and 2018 revealed that the population of individual Rice whales in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico is approximately 50. This dangerous low population makes them one of the most endangered.

Factors contributing to their extinction

Rice’s whales’ limited distribution makes them more vulnerable to threats. Oil spills, which are a common in the Gulf of Mexico, may also cause the death of whales; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill reduced these whales’ population by 22%. Vessel strikes, ocean noise, and debris are also major threats.

Courtesy: Britannica

To prevent this whale species from going extinct, it’s important to address ocean noise- the low-frequency noise that overlaps with their hearing range. Reducing vessel strikes is also a way forward.

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