Scientists discover new 'beaked' whale species off Japanese coast

Danielle Demetriou
The new species of beaked whale was found in the North Pacific

A small black whale found in Pacific Ocean waters off the northern coastline of Japan has been identified by scientists as a new species.

Whalers based in Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido are thought to have long been aware of the existence of the beaked whales, referring to them by a local name karasu, meaning “crow”.

Scientists from the National Museum of Nature and Science at Hokkaido University have confirmed that the rare whales are a species that has never been formally identified.

Their findings were based on the examination of several deceased specimens, including DNA testing, which led to the cetaceans being officially named the Black Baird’s beaked whale, or Berardius minimus (B. minimus).

Professor Takashi Matsuishi, from the Fisheries Sciences faculty at Hokkaido University, told Science Daily: “There are still many things we don't know about B. minimus. We still don't know what adult females look like, and there are still many questions related to species distribution, for example. We hope to continue expanding what we know about B. minimus.”

The animals were known to whalers but had never been formally identified

Beaked whales are known to be low profile, with a capacity to dive for long periods and a preference for deep waters, which means their behaviour has not been as well documented as many other cetaceans.

Researchers reportedly tapped into the Marine Mammal Stranding networks, which shares information among scientists about stranded or deceased marine mammals. They subsequently collected six stranded beaked whales along the Japan’s northern coast off the Okhost Sea before conducting in-depth analysis of their make-up.

“Just by looking at them, we could tell that they have a remarkably smaller body size, more spindle-shaped body, a shorter beak, and darker color compared to known Berardius species," added Tadasu Yamada, a member of the research team and curator of the National Museum of Nature and Science.

The discovery of the new whale species, suspected to be the same as the “karasu” type long spotted by local whalers, comes shortly after Japan resumed its controversial whaling practices after a 33 year hiatus.

Hokkaido has long been known as one of Japan’s whaling hubs, with many whalers based in Kushiro port.