Scientists spot ‘impossible’ new whale species

Whale watch: Zoologists used acoustic signals to identify the undiscovered mammal. © Sea Shepherd

Are we killing species faster than we thought? Naturalists discover thousands of new animals and plants each year. Yet, at the same time, countless more are wiped out by humans.

As the sun rose over the Pacific on 17 November, the crew of the Martin Sheen caught some ripples in the ocean surface. Then, three slick, curvaceous forms bobbed out of the water, before plunging back towards the deep.

It was over in an instant. But for the marine biologists of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, it was life-changing. Studying photographs, videos and the acoustic signals, they quickly realised that they had laid eyes on a never-described species of beaked whale.

“It just sends chills up and down my spine,” recalled Dr Jay Barlow, one of the expedition leaders. “We might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible – finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science.”

While sighting a new whale is remarkable, smaller organisms are discovered all the time. Naturalists have claimed that we live in “a new age of discovery”. In 2016, scientists globally described some 18,000 new plants and animals. Last year’s new sightings included a gecko able to disguise itself as a tree, a Madagascan frog smaller than a fingernail and a pocket shark that glows in the dark.

And there is much more to uncover. Scientists estimate that there are 8.7 million species of animals, plants and fungi in the world. Of these, we have named a mere 1.6 million. There is still 82% of life remaining for us to identify – without accounting for microscopic organisms like bacteria and viruses. These might number over a quadrillion.

But our age is also one of extinction. Through human activities like hunting, habitat destruction and climate change, whole species are being erased forever. According to entomologist Quentin Wheeler, “We’re actually losing species faster than we’re describing and naming them.”

More than 460 plant and animal species were declared extinct in the last decade, including the Pinta giant tortoise, the Christmas Island bat and the mouse-like Bramble Cay melomys. These are just creatures that we knew. Modern scientific cataloguing of living things began with the 18th Century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Innumerable organisms might have been driven to extinction before they were recorded.

Recent research has shown that the giraffe, once believed to be a single species, has at least three variants. How do we know that the same might not be true of the Dodo? And climate change affects habitats that humans have yet to fully explore. As the ocean heats up, who is to say there are not innumerable gelatinous creatures perishing in the Mariana Trench, unseen by human eyes?

It could be argued that none of this is new knowledge. Conservationists have identified the speed and the severity of the problem for decades. In 2002, for instance, the biologist E O Wilson posited that half of all plant and animal species would be dead by 2100.

Despite this, human inaction is particularly acute in the developing countries that house many of the earth’s most biodiverse regions. The savannah might teem with wildlife, but it could also provide home and work for thousands of impoverished humans. As climate scientist Emma Archer explains, “You can’t just tell leaders in Africa that there can’t be any development and that we should turn the whole continent into a national park.”

Are we killing species faster than we thought?

Dead on arrival

Without question, say some. Homo sapiens have existed for 200,000 years, but in that time we have only managed to glimpse a paltry proportion of the other organisms with which we share the Earth. As we drive the flora and fauna known to us towards extinction by eradicating habitats and heating up the globe, it follows that unknown lifeforms are facing a similar demise without our knowledge.

Thought who, say others. Biologists have warned us about the havoc our actions wreak on the Earth’s biodiversity for decades. But populations and their leaders have consciously decided to ignore them, instead prioritising human development – something no-one has the moral or political authority to stop.

You Decide

  1. Is it always wrong to make a species of animals extinct, or are their situations in which it can be justified?

Activities

  1. Draw a newly-discovered animal of your creation, give it a scientific name, pice it in its natural habitat and indicate why it has not yet been discovered.
  2. In groups of three, choose a type of living organisation and list why it is important for human life. Present your choice to the class. At the end of the lesson hold a class vote to rank the animals in order of importance.

Some People Say...

“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

David Attenborough (1926 - ), English broadcaster and naturalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is a widespread consensus among biologists that humans are responsible for a mass extinction of other animals and plants. Also known as the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction, this process began when humans started to hunt and harvest other creatures. It has accelerated since the beginning of the 20th Century due to increased meat and fish consumption, the destruction of habitats for building and farming, and the effects of global warming, such as coastal erosion and ocean acidification.
What do we not know?
There remains debate on the rate of animal and plant extinction. Scientists have placed the current extinction rate as anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times higher than it was before humans became a primary contributor, an enormously wide margin. There is further disagreement over whether the mass extinction crisis is already underway. Biologist E O Wilson posts an ongoing process, while his contemporary Stuart Pimm argued in 2017 that it is yet to begin: “we are on the edge”.

Word Watch

Martin Sheen
Named for the Hollywood actor, a longtime supporter of the Sea Shepherds charity.
Beaked whale
A group of whales named for their dolphin-like beak. Able to plunge at least 2,992m underwater, they remain particularly difficult to sight.
Age of discovery
An informal term for the period, roughly between 1400-1750, in which Europeans embarked on extensive global exploration.
Quadrillion
A thousand raised to the power of five, or 1,000,000,000,000,000. By comparison, there are 400,000,000,000 stars in the Milky Way at upper estimate.
Entomologist
A zoologist specialising in studying insects, derived from the Ancient Greek word for insect, ‘entomon’. Famous entomologists include the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, naturalist Charles Darwin and the novelist Vladmir Nabokov.
Carl Linnaeus
An influential botanist and zoologist whose Systema Naturae (1735 - 68) originated the classification systems we use to distinguish species. According to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there was “no greater man on earth”.
Dodo
A flightless bird native to Mauritius. Historically mocked for being obese and ungraceful, it is now an emblem of humanity’s ability to eradicate other species.
Mariana Trench
The deepest oceanic trench on Earth, reaching down up to 11,034 metres.

Subjects

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