World, Meet The Omura’s Whale: The Incredibly Rare, Tropical Whale Science Just Found

Scientists are learning more and more about the extremely rare Omura’s whale, a species they only just learned existed.

Over the span of a few months, Dr. Salvatore Cerchio and his fellow researchers at the New England Aquarium have discovered 80 individuals, spotted calves, listened to them singing, and learned what the Omura’s whale likes to eat, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

And if they can get the funding, they’ll return to the waters off Madagascar, where the Omura’s whale lives, and hopefully learn even more about them.

For years, scientists thought the Omura’s whale was actually pygmy Bryde’s whale and were astonished to discover, in 2003, that they were entirely different species.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, 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 of beached animals.

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.

There isn’t much difference between the Omura’s and Bryde’s. 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. They also live in remote regions and are different from other whales in that they socialize in loose groups.

The most striking feature of the Omura’s whale is that they live in the Indian Ocean, but they aren’t supposed to be there. Their known range was in the western Pacific and the far eastern portion of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia, Cerchio told Fox News.

“Once we realized they were Omura’s whales, it was mind boggling because first of all, no one had studied these animals. No one had seen them or documented them in the wild and they were not supposed to be in Madagascar. The work that we’ve done has extended their range significantly.”

The lineage of the Omura’s whale goes back up to 17 million years, and today, the creature spends its whole life in the tropics. Scientists compare the tropics to a desert, as far as food for whales goes, so seeing the creatures there is “really unusual and special.”

After observing the Omura’s whale in the fall, researchers learned that they were feeding on tiny shrimp, helping them to learn more about the ecosystem that supports the creatures. Since they’re baleen whales, they filter the shrimp, called euphausiids, through the sieve-like baleen in their mouths.

In another discovery, the team spotted five mother-calf pairs, which tells them the Omura’s whale not only eats in the waters off Madagascar, but they are breeding there, too. And since they spied one individual whale three times in four years, the team believes that the group of 80 individuals they’re studying live in the same region every year.

They’ve also captured the rare and elusive creatures on audio, collecting two weeks of constant acoustic data of their songs last fall, according to Cerchio. They planted more recorders and will return in April to have a listen to six more months of audio. Singing among tropical species, like the Omura’s whale, hasn’t been studied in depth.

“They sing a very simple but interesting song. It’s very rhythmic and they repeat the same vocalization for hours on end. You have groups of animals singing in a chorus… These guys are feeding, breeding, and singing all in the same habitat.”

Now that science knows these creatures exist and are learning more about them, Cerchio is doing his best to ensure the Omura’s whale is protected from environmental pressures — small populations in particular can be very vulnerable.

[Photo via Omura’s Whale Project Facebook]