A small group of baleen whales being studied in the Gulf of Mexico have been identified as a new species. The group was previously thought to be a population of Bryde's whales, but a close examination of the skull of a beached individual revealed a number of distinct features. This morphological data, along with genetic data, supports the idea that these whales represent a previously unidentified species, named the Rice's whale after American biologist Dale Rice.
This may seem surprising considering these whales can reach 13 metres (42 feet) in length. But their elusiveness can be explained by their feeding behaviour, taking them deep under the water to hunt near the sea-floor. They're also very rare; it is believed to have a population fewer than 100 whales, threatened by ship strikes, noise pollution, and entanglement in trawling nets.
Their discovery is a reminder of the importance of protecting our oceans from harm, for we have only scratched the surface of understanding the life that lives there. These are creatures we have rarely set eyes upon, yet that are already threatened by human activity.