Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Scientists find new whale species


This file photo shows a rare species of whale aboard a ship in the Pacific ocean. Japanese researchers say they have uncovered a previously unidentified species of whale.


There is a new whale in the ocean, Japanese scientists are reporting in the journal Nature.

Using analysis of bone structure and DNA, three researchers reported that some puzzling whales, first noticed by scientists in the late 1970s when Japanese whalers killed eight of them, represent a new species in a group of whales that have long been a subject of taxonomic confusion. They call the new whale Balaenoptera omurai.

The three scientists said the whales differed from other species in a jawbone, DNA and baleen -- the plates that hang from the upper jaw and are used to filter krill, plankton and other small creatures from sea water.

Other scientists are not so sure. Howard Rosenbaum, a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the Japanese researchers had done "an admirable job to at least open the question as whether this is a distinct species," but added that more DNA analysis needed to be done.

Dale Rice, a retired wildlife research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said he recalled that when the original whales were taken, "nobody knew quite what they were." Without study of the bones and DNA, he said, they would be hard to tell from similar whales, since "they look pretty much alike."

The Japanese researchers -- Shiro Wada of Japan's National Research Institute of Fisheries Science; Masayuki Oishi of the Iwata Prefectural Museum; and Tadasu Yamada of the National Science Museum -- used samples taken more than 20 years ago from the eight whales killed in the 1970s, and tissue and bones from a whale carcass found on an island in the Sea of Japan in 1998.

The whales belong to a group called the rorqual whales, or balaenoptera, which includes the blue whale, fin whale, sei and minke whales. These whales were thought to be similar to Bryde's whale or the smaller similar whale sometimes called Eden's whale.

In their analysis the researchers said they found enough differences to name a new species, and to show that Eden's whale was a separate species as well.

This sifting of DNA and re-examination of old specimens is often the way new species are named now. Last year, for example, a new species of beaked whale, Mesoplodon perrini, was named (or discovered, depending on one's point of view) through a DNA analysis of animals that had washed ashore near San Diego in the mid-1970s.

In 2000, Rosenbaum and colleagues separated a third species of right whale from two others with DNA analysis, and resurrected an earlier species name that had fallen out of use, Eubalaena japonica.

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