New Whale Population Discovered in Indian Ocean

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

A study published last week in the journal Endangered Species Research reports the discovery of a new group of blue whales living in the Indian Ocean. Researchers identified this new group of whales from their distinct song: “a slow, bellowing ballad” as the New York Times reported. There are only about a dozen blue whale songs on record, making this discovery particularly important to understanding and appreciating this majestic species.

Why This Matters:  As scientists learn more about blue whale songs and the clues they hold about whale behavior, it strengthens efforts to help protect the species.  As it went unnoticed for so long, this new whale population is likely and “in critical need of status assessment and conservation action,” the study authors explained. 

Blue whales particularly are notoriously elusive and studying them across the vast distances they swim is difficult for researchers. This new discovery highlights just how much we still don’t know about our oceans and the creatures that call them home. 

Revving Up Conservation: Whaling in the 19th and 20th-centuries caused immense damage to blue whale populations; only 10,000 to 25,000 blue whales are estimated to remain, underscoring the urgency of further conserving their numbers.

Due to conservation advocacy, some whale populations have begun to bounce back. For example, Bowhead whales were once nearly extinct, as commercial whalers at the turn of the twentieth century hunted them for their oil, blubber, and baleen. However, the end of commercial whaling, the natural inaccessibility of their icy habitats, and the sustainable management of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission have brought this species back from the brink. The success in whale conservation has also paved the way for the discovery of new species. Off the coast of Mexico, researchers have found a new species of beaked whale, a good sign for whales across the world.

Marine Biologist Asha de Vos, who was not involved in the study but studies blue whales in the Indian Ocean told the New York Times: “What things like this show us is that there are different populations, with different adaptations, with potentially different needs. To conserve the world’s blue whales, there’s not one single protection measure that’s going to work.”

 

A New Type of Song: A group of researchers at the African Aquatic Conservation Fund in Massachusetts initially observed this new whale song when they were attempting to find a pod of Omura’s whales off the coast of Madagascar several years ago. They placed a recorder on the coastal shelf, and once they encountered this new whale song, the researchers decided to drop their instruments into deeper water, where blue whales tend to live.

This song was unlike any whale song they had ever heard. Salvatore Cerchio, the study’s lead author, told the New York Times: “It’s like hearing different songs within a genre — Stevie Ray Vaughan versus B. B. King. It’s all blues, but you know the different styles.”

To get more information about this pod, this squad of researchers collected data off the coast of Oman and Australia, where colleagues heard similar songs. These data suggest that this whale pod has a distinct dialect.

It’s unclear how this pod developed its own dialect, or the purpose of its songs. But, as Asha de Vos told the New York Times, this discovery is “a great reminder that our oceans are still this very unexplored place.” 

 

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