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Irish Researchers Contribute to Identifying New Whale Species

2nd November 2021
Maori whale expert Ramari Stewart with the skull of the newly discovered species of whale named after her
Maori whale expert Ramari Stewart with the skull of the newly discovered species of whale named after her

Irish whale experts have contributed to the identification of a new species of whale which is so deep diving that it has rarely been recorded before.

A global network of researchers including Prof Emer Rogan of University College Cork/Environmental Research Institute used sophisticated genetic analysis to confirm the identification.

The new type of whale, which was washed up on the New Zealand coast almost a decade ago, is believed to be one of about 1.5 million as yet undiscovered species in the deep ocean.

It has been named Ramari’s beaked whale after Ramari Stewart, a Mātauranga Māori whale expert, while its scientific name, Mesoplodon eueu, refers to its indigenous roots in South Africa.

The new whale species, Ramari's beaked whale, which Irish researchers helped to identify.jpgThe new whale species, Ramari's beaked whale, which Irish researchers helped to identify

Prof Rogan says the identification is exciting on two fronts – the first being confirmation of any new species of marine mammal, and the second being that this particular whale has been given an indigenous name to acknowledge the Maori input in the research.

As Prof Rogan explained, it was originally believed that the mammal washed ashore on the west coast of Te Waipounamu (South Island), Aotearoa New Zealand was a True’s beaked whale.

Named An Míol mór socach breá in Irish, the True’s beaked whale was named after Frederick True, a curator at what is now the US Smithsonian, and some 14 of this type have been recorded on the Irish west coast.

The squid-eating whale has never been hunted, and most knowledge of it comes from stranding records as it can dive thousands of metres to find its prey and spends a lot of time offshore.

However, Ramari Stewart knew there was something different about this whale and contacted biologist Dr Emma Carroll of the University of Auckland.

Prof Rogan and colleagues including Dr Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology were then among a number of researchers asked to provide samples.

“When it was confirmed that this was not a True’s beaked whale, we did establish that it was closely related and may have been separated around two million years ago,”Prof Rogan says.

The discovery brings the total number of beaked whale species to 24, with this new one being indigenous to the southern hemisphere.

“It’s wonderful that a new míol mór species has been discovered and highlights just how little we know about biodiversity in the deep sea,”Prof Rogan said.

“ Deep diving beaked whale species are difficult to study,” she said.

“The work involved a large collaboration of researchers and indigenous practitioners across the globe with the multi-discliplinary nature of the work demonstrating the importance and value of long term cetacean stranding programmes and data collection, along with museum and tissue archives,”she said.

Naming it after Ramari Stewart is also “a fitting tribute to an amazing woman, practised in traditional skills and knowledge, while also highlighting the disappearance of many local languages”, Prof Rogan added.

Dr Emma Carroll and collaborators have published the findings in the international journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

More here

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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