Even in this day and age, Earth retains plenty of mysteries waiting to be discovered. Take the Omura’s whale — it’s so elusive and mysterious that scientists know next to nothing about it. But that’s about to change: the creature has been filmed for the first time ever.
Now, scientists will finally be able to learn more about the Omura’s whale, a small tropical marine mammal that bears such striking similarity to another whale that until recently, scientists didn’t even know Omura’s existed.
The Omura’s whale hadn’t been seen much in the wild, forget filmed, until just a few years ago. What science knew about the creature was based on scant data from on-shore sightings, eight found via a Japanese scientific whaling expedition in 2003, and a couple beached animals, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which recently filmed the creature and has started to collect more useful data.
All of these previously studied creatures were dead, but an examination of the dead animals’ DNA confirmed that the Omura’s whale was a distinct species. But a live Omura’s whale remained a rare sight indeed, so rare, in fact, that no one knows how many even exist.
— Discovery (@Discovery) November 2, 2015
“This is the first definitive evidence and detailed descriptions of Omura’s whales in the wild and part of what makes this work particularly exciting,” said guest investigator Salvatore Cerchio, who lead the team that filmed the creature.
Cerchio’s team of researchers had been studying marine mammals in Madagascar waters starting in 2007, Discovery reported. Four years later, they started spotting the Omura’s whale but didn’t realize what they were looking at. They thought the animals were just more Bryde’s, albeit a dwarf variety.
There isn’t much difference between the two. Both are small, tropical baleen whales with similar dorsal fins. A Bryde’s whale is a bit bigger, with the Omura’s about 33 to 38 feet long; their small size makes them fast swimmers, but tough to spot. But the more mysterious whale has one unique characteristic: asymmetrical patches of dark and light stripes on its jaw, Tech Times added. They also live in remote regions and are different from other whales in that they socialize in loose groups.
According to the Washington Post, the team was in disbelief when they first spotted Omura’s off the coast of Madagascar in 2011 because they weren’t “supposed to be in that part of the Indian Ocean,” Cerchio said.
Researchers then moved to a different part of the ocean and, in 2013, started spotting those distinct jaw markings more clearly. They saw 44 groups of Omura’s over two years, including four mothers with new calves.
To learn more about the Omura’s whale, they filmed the creature and collected skin biopsies from 18 adults, recorded their vocalizations between the moms and babies in the hopes of learning more about their reproductive behavior, and filmed their foraging behavior and habitat preferences.
The biopsies confirmed these were Omura’s whales and not Bryde’s as previously believed.
That they filmed the small silver whale at all was remarkable because it marks the very first time it’s been seen on film. In the footage, the animal glides gracefully in clear blue water just beneath the surface.
Cerchio will return to Madagascar this month to learn even more. They want to study their behavior and their songs, as well as determine how rare the Omura’s whale is by estimating its population. So far, 25 individuals have been identified by photograph and cataloged.
Which means science will go from knowing nothing about the Omura’s whale to cracking another of Mother Nature’s endless mysteries.
[Photo Via YouTube Screengrab]