Irish researchers help identify entirely new whale species

Irish researchers help identify entirely new whale species

Maori whale expert Ramari Stewart with the skull of the newly discovered species of whale named after her.

Irish whale experts have contributed to the identification of a new species of whale which dives so deep that it has rarely been recorded before.

A global network of researchers, including Professor Emer Rogan of University College Cork/Environmental Research Institute, used sophisticated genetic analysis to confirm the identification.

The new type of whale, which was washed up on the New Zealand coast almost a decade ago, is believed to be one of about 1.5 million as-yet undiscovered species in the deep ocean.

It has been named Ramari’s beaked whale after Ramari Stewart, a Mātauranga Māori whale expert, while its scientific name, Mesoplodon eueu, refers to its indigenous roots in South Africa.

Prof. Rogan says the identification is exciting on two fronts – the first being confirmation of any new species of marine mammal, and the second being that this particular whale has been given an indigenous name to acknowledge the Maori input in the research.

Ramari’s beaked whale, one of 24 beaked whale species, which is indigenous to the southern hemisphere.
Ramari’s beaked whale, one of 24 beaked whale species, which is indigenous to the southern hemisphere.

As Prof. Rogan explained, it was originally believed that the mammal washed ashore on the west coast of Te Waipounamu (South Island), Aotearoa, New Zealand, was a True’s beaked whale.

Named An Míol mór socach breá in Irish, the True’s beaked whale was named after Frederick True, a curator at what is now the US Smithsonian, and some 14 of this type have been recorded on the Irish west coast.

The squid-eating whale has never been hunted, and most knowledge of it comes from stranding records as it can dive thousands of metres to find its prey and spends a lot of time offshore.

However, Ramari Stewart knew there was something different about this whale and contacted biologist Dr Emma Carroll of the University of Auckland.

Prof. Rogan and colleagues, including Dr Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, were then among a number of researchers asked to provide samples.

“When it was confirmed that this was not a True’s beaked whale, we did establish that it was closely related and may have been separated around two million years ago,” Prof. Rogan says.

The discovery brings the total number of beaked whale species to 24, with this new one being indigenous to the southern hemisphere.

“It’s wonderful that a new míol mór species has been discovered and highlights just how little we know about biodiversity in the deep sea,” Prof. Rogan said.

“Deep-diving beaked whale species are difficult to study.

“The work involved a large collaboration of researchers and indigenous practitioners across the globe with the multi-discliplinary nature of the work demonstrating the importance and value of long-term cetacean stranding programmes and data collection, along with museum and tissue archives,” she added.

Naming it after Ramari Stewart is also “a fitting tribute to an amazing woman, practised in traditional skills and knowledge, while also highlighting the disappearance of many local languages”, Prof. Rogan added.

Dr Emma Carroll and collaborators have published the findings in the international journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

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