After American biologist Del Rice, fewer than 100 specimens of a species called the rice whale, Balaenoptera rice, live in the Gulf, according to the online edition of the British daily The Guardian.
Experts had previously considered this species to be from the Bryde whale group, but they note that this group is concentrated in the northeast corner of the bay and does not mix with Bryde whales, which are also found in the India, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and, unlike the sea floor, feed in close proximity.
Lynsey Wilcox, a geneticist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and her colleagues have been collecting tissue samples from cedar whales since 2000. Samples from 36 individuals were compared with the genes of Bryde whales and the result confirmed that they are a separate species.
The genetic studies were also supplemented with morphological analysis by the researchers. The bone remains preserved in a museum, as well as the 11-meter-tall Balaenoptera cedar skeleton that landed in Florida in January 2019, have also been analyzed.
Examination of the skulls showed that in the newly identified species, the bone around the nostril differs in shape and size from the Bryde and tropical whales, which are also close relatives.
According to Wilcox, genetic and structural differences were already sufficient to warrant the identification of a new species.
Cedar whales are already classified as endangered in the United States. In April 2019, the Endangered Species Act was extended to them as a group of Bryde whales, and by identifying them as a stand-alone species, not much will likely change other than changing their name.
As “residents” in the Gulf of Mexico, whales are threatened by, among other things, oil spills, collisions with ships, noise pollution of the oceans, and entanglement with fishing gear.