Scientists from NOAA Fisheries have identified a new species of baleen whale in the Gulf of Mexico. The new species, previously thought to be a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale, has been named Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei) in honor of Dale Rice, who enjoyed a distinguished 60-year career in marine mammal science. Rice, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 87, was the first researcher to recognize that these whales were even present in the Gulf.
The NOAA scientists, led by Dr. Patricia Rosel, identified the species after conducting morphological examinations of whale skulls and analyzing genetic data. Rosel began this research in 2008 when she and co-author Lynsey Wilcox examined the first genetic data obtained from samples collected on NOAA Fisheries vessel surveys in the Gulf. Their confirmation of a new species was published online in January by the journal Marine Mammal Science.
Believed to number only two to three dozen animals, Rice’s whales are found only in the Upper Gulf of Mexico and are facing an uncertain future. When classified as Bryde’s whales, they were designated as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act and further protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Now recognized as a separate species, they are considered critically endangered, although that designation is not yet official and won’t be until the species name is formally accepted by the Society for Marine Mammalogy Committee on Taxonomy.
Rice’s whales occupy a relatively industrialized stretch of ocean and face a number of threats to their survival—including pollution, oil and gas exploration and extraction, ocean noise, entanglement in fishing gear, and strikes from vessel traffic. Yet their discovery so close to the continental United States provides scientists with a prime opportunity to study and, hopefully, save them.