The Bryde’s whale has been playing tricks on us ever since its discovery. For the past hundred years, the scientific description of the elusive marine mammal has remained blurry. An outline drawn in pencil that still awaits its final inking. Today, scientists believe that what was originally thought to be a single species actually represents a group of several closely related whales: a “species complex”. But working out how many different members should claim their place among the Bryde’s bunch has been – well, a whale-sized challenge.
This is why a complete Bryde’s whale specimen that washed up in Namibia recently has local scientists so excited. The animal in question washed ashore last month in the city of Swakopmund. Where the Namib Desert spills into the sandy beaches of the Atlantic. A Bryde’s whale in southern Africa is not an unusual find – it’s here that scientists first learned of the whale’s existence. But several unique features in this particular specimen made local researchers sit up and take notice.
For a start, the animal was longer than the Bryde’s whales usually encountered in coastal waters, which measure under 14 metres. What’s more, its remains dotted with bites from cookiecutter sharks. These fearsomely toothy fish inhabit the depths of the open ocean. So the telltale marks they’d left behind on the Namibian specimen were an important clue. This whale was a voyager from afar.
Scientists know that two populations of Bryde’s whales cruise the southern African coastline: one inshore and one offshore. The latter group remains poorly studied and its enigmatic representatives are rarely seen. But it’s also where scientists must look for the missing piece of the Bryde’s whale puzzle. A piece that has been lost for over a hundred years.
The task of identifying and describing the Namibia carcass will take several years, but with the help of the country’s Ministry of Fisheries, the Luderitz Museum and the Namibian Dolphin Project, the tedious process of securing, sampling and disassembling the lengthy leviathan has already begun.
While there are no full specimens to compare it to, previous research has left a trail of clues that could prove helpful along the way. In the past, Penry has run DNA analysis on a piece of whale skin recovered from another washed-up carcass, featuring the same telltale cookiecutter scars. There’s also a chance that a skeleton at a museum in Stockholm might be that of an offshore Bryde’s whale.
Over the coming months, the team will perform a detailed analysis of samples taken from the Namibia carcass. They’ll also conduct a full overview of the skeleton, paying particular attention to the skull. If the features prove different enough from more readily accessible coastal Bryde’s whale specimens.
“Basically, we’re working backwards,” says Penry. And in the case of the Bryde’s whale, the only way forward lies a few steps back.
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Posted by Wild Animal World on Saturday, January 27, 2018
Source: Earth Touch