MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — After decades of research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have made a massive discovery of a new species of whale in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the 1960s, researchers have noticed subtle differences in the Bryde’s whales that live in the Gulf of Mexico compared with those that live elsewhere. Recently, it was discovered that the Bryde’s whales that live in the Gulf are actually a whole different and new species of whale now called the Rice’s whale.

Mackenzie Russell, the Stranding Coordinator for Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network, explains, “Just something a little bit different from kind of a standard of what we thought a Bryde’s whale was. That had to do with skull morphology, the anatomy of the skull, and then these different feeding behaviors.” The Bryde’s whale is known to eat mainly at the surface of the water, while the new Rice’s whale dives deep to find food.

Russell adds, “It grows to be about 55 feet, potentially 30 tons…so they are huge as you can imagine. And just like other baleen whales, they filter feed. They actually have plates called baleen that they filter feed through.” There were a couple of strandings that allowed scientists to study these whales, but the breakthrough was a 2019 stranding in Florida. A fresh stranding plus the entire animal being found led to scientist’s ability to get plenty of accurate samples that help lead to this new discovery.

Unfortunately, the Rice’s whale is severely endangered. Scientists estimate around 33 of these whales left on the planet. Most are concentrated in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Russell emphasizes, “Almost overnight, there is this new critically endangered species literally in the northern Gulf of Mexico.”

Back in 2016, two fishermen found a lower jaw bone of a whale and brought it to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Researchers, there are doing genetic testing and believe this bone could belong to this new species.