Whale's Voice Is the Only Evidence It Exists

Researchers have recorded sounds from a potentially new species for 18 years
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 10, 2023 1:10 PM CST
Whale's Voice Is the Only Evidence It Exists
An adult female beaked whale swimming off the Kona coast in Hawaii. The elusive whale under study may be a new species of beaked whale.   (AP Photo/ Cascadia Research Collective, Robin W. Baird)

Scientists have been eavesdropping on the calls of a certain type of whale for the last 18 years, but despite a few close encounters, have yet to see the elusive mammal. As Hakai Magazine reports, researchers from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently pored over years of recordings to better understand the whale. The analysis of calls captured by underwater microphones, called hydrophones, offer clues. The calls likely come from a type of beaked whale, and while they could be made by a known variety, there's cause to believe it's a new species. "I'm not taking it off the table," says NOAA biologist Jennifer McCullough.

For now, they're calling it the Cross Seamount beaked whale, from the name of the underwater mountain off Hawaii where its calls were first heard. There are 24 known species of beaked whales, which tend to stay in deeper waters to avoid orca attacks and thus are difficult to observe. "In a three-hour period, you have maybe 10 minutes where they are at the surface," says McCullough. When they do surface, it's not easy to determine which type of beaked whale you're seeing. Since beaked whales are so stealthy, scientists primarily observe them through their sounds. The whales echolocate to navigate and find prey, but the calls are so high-pitched, humans cannot hear them.

Unlike other beaked whales, the Cross Seamount calls occur primarily at night, and at depths shallower than other beaked whales, strengthening the theory that it's an undiscovered species. Researchers are still discovering new beaked whales, including the most recent official identification in 2021. According to the Hill, that new whale was first spotted in 2010 by members of the Makaawhio tribe, who found a pregnant female washed up on New Zealand's South Island. It was dubbed "Ramari's beaked whale" after a Maori whale expert, Ramari Stewart. (An extinct whale may be the heaviest animal ever to have lived.)

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