New subspecies of fin whale identified using genetic research as scientists say there are more species yet to be discovered
Eric Archer, a geneticist at NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California, told MEA World Wide that even though they knew about the existence of fin whales in the North Pacific, this is the first time they've been recognized as a separate taxa
Genetic research has identified a new fin whale subspecies in the northern Pacific Ocean, highlighting the diversity of marine mammals and just how little we know about them. Scientists believe that there are still many subspecies and species that are still out there in the vast blue seas that we know nothing about and they hope that genetic technology will help them identify them.
Eric Archer, a geneticist at NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) in California, who is the lead author that identified the subspecies told MEA World Wide that even though they knew about the existence of fin whales in the North Pacific, the second-largest species on Earth after the blue whale, this is the first time they've been recognized as a separate taxa. "We know a bit about their distribution, but very little about how their movement patterns or items like when or where they breed," he said.
They had always suspected that North Pacific fin whales were separate taxa, he says but they didn't have enough evidence to prove it. Fin whales are the fastest swimmers among great whales, going up to 23 miles per hour. Additionally, they are also large - growing up to 70 feet long, their gigantic sizes making them very hard to study in a lab. Their skulls alone, which are traditionally used for comparison of characteristics during taxonomic work, measure up to 15 feet.
Called fin whales because of their easy to spot fin near the tail, they were viciously hunted in the North Pacific Ocean from 1947 to 1987. It is estimated that about 46,000 fin whales were killed and as a result, they are an Endangered species. They are one of the largest whale species we know the least about.
Scientists compared the DNA from fin whales in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and it showed them that they have been separated for hundreds of thousands of years. "The issue was that we had not accumulated enough specimens from the three ocean basins where they exist (North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Southern Hemisphere) to make a comparison," Archer said, adding, "We were able to make use of samples from a collection of samples that we have been growing and curating at our lab in conjunction with samples that were donated by multiple colleagues."
Archer says that advances in genetics will be the primary way they continue to find more diversity in this taxa. "There are absolutely more cetacean subspecies and species yet to be discovered and defined. It has always been ironic that these are the largest animals on the planet, yet we know so very little about them. Some of them have only been seen in the wild a handful of times," he said.
New technologies allow these scientists to more easily and cheaply sequence and analyze the entire genome, along with one other method that will help understand behavioral patterns. "There are also new acoustic methods that are letting us collect and analyze large numbers of recordings which have the potential to tell us more about behavioral differences among regions," he said.
Genetic technology has helped SWFSC's Research Molecular Geneticist Dr. Phillip A. Morin in 2016. Morin has also been working with a number of other researchers to better understand the taxonomy of killer whales, which may be composed of several species. SWFSC's geneticist Karen Fear Martien is also using this technology to understand the social structuring and population subdivision of false killer whales and other species in the Hawaiian Islands. Another geneticist Aimee R. Lang has been working on understanding the population structure of gray whales in the Pacific using genetic technology.
These findings will help in the subspecies' protection, says Archer. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) lists organisms relative to species or subspecies. Previously, fin whales were listed as a single Northern Hemisphere subspecies. "This meant that assessments had to be done for both ocean basins in order to modify their listing. By listing the North Pacific as a separate subspecies, we can now manage at a more appropriate scale. For instance, if fin whales in the North Pacific are recovering well, we can more easily modify their ESA listing to reflect that," he said.