Beaked whales are deep foragers, and this has made it difficult for researchers to learn a lot about them. Fortunately, whale song recordings can give us a glimpse into the lives of each species, including the mysterious beaked whales that are among one of the world’s largest cetacean families. Recent recordings offered a nice surprise for the researchers who spend a significant portion of their lives studying whales: a previously unrecorded echolocation signal that most likely belongs to a new species.
What Do We Know About Beaked Whales?
As of last year, that had been 22 species of beaked whales discovered, and the rare interactions that humans have with these creatures have provided fascinating insights into their nature. For example, beaked whales are currently the only known cetacean species that puts upsweep pulses to work for them as a method of echolocation. Additionally, these deep diving whales continue to break depth records. In 2014, a Cuvier’s beaked whale was recorded diving to an astounding depth of 2,992 meters. At least one member of this species was also able to stay submerged for two hours, 17 minutes and 30 seconds before returning to the surface for air. This is especially impressive when you consider the fact that these mammals require oxygen to breathe just like humans.
Where is the New Species Located?
If researchers are correct, the most recently discovered beaked whale species resides in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. Therefore, explorers who participate in an Antarctic cruise could potentially find themselves near a submerged beaked whale. The diving and breath-holding capabilities of this species make it unlikely that they will actually be seen from the ship, but it is still intriguing to know that they will probably be nearby.
How Do the Recordings Indicate a New Species?
Each beaked whale species that has been identified to date is known to have its own unique echolocation signals. Throughout 14 different recording sessions, researchers from the U.S. and Argentina picked up more than 1,000 occurrences of a signal that had never been previously recorded. This signal was then compared to all of the known species of beaked whale, and there were no conclusive comparisons.
Could it be From a Known Species?
Most beaked whale species have been completely ruled out, but there are three types that could still possibly be responsible for these echolocation signals: the southern bottlenosed whale, strap-toothed whale or Gray’s beaked whale. Scientists think that the southern bottlenosed whale is the most likely source of the signals if they have not actually discovered a new species. Interestingly, verified recordings from the northern bottlenosed whale are extremely different from this new signal, and this makes scientists question whether or not their southern relatives would produce such a vastly different echolocation signal.
Are There Actually Two New Species?
The signal that was recorded more than 1,000 times has been named the Antarctic BW29, and the prevalence of this echolocation technique has captured most of the media attention. However, the same researchers also found evidence of another previously unrecorded signal and have dubbed it the Antarctic BW37. Unlike the first signal, the Antarctic BW37 was only recorded six times, and this makes it much more difficult to determine if it belongs to a new species. There is a noticeable difference between BW29 and BW37, so it is seems unlikely that they were produced by the same type of whale. After all, no other species of beaked whale has ever been observed singing with two completely different frequencies.
Due to the elusive nature of beaked whales, it may be a long time before scientists are able to determine with any certainty exactly what these recordings mean. It seems highly likely that at least one and possibly two new species of whale have been discovered, but there is also the possibility that one or more of the beaked whale species has the previously undiscovered ability to change pitch. Either way, researchers are virtually certain to dedicate more time and resources to the quest for a conclusive answer. In the meantime, Antarctic expedition participants can keep their eyes and cameras pointed at the water in case one of these whales decides to surface at just the right time.