UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Team Played Role in Identifying Previously Undiscovered Whale Species

Monday, February 15, 2021

When UNCW’s Ann Pabst and Bill McLellan were called in March 2003 to examine the carcass of a whale that had just washed up at Carolina Beach, they noticed that the cetacean appeared to be unlike any that they’d seen before. As it turns out, it was.
More than 17 years later, the sub-adult male was confirmed to be a member of a previously undiscovered species of baleen whale that lives in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico and traverses the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. In January 2021, NOAA researchers Patricia Rosel, Lynsey Wilcox, Keith Mullin and Tadasu Yamada of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science published a paper identifying the tentatively named Rice’s Whale as a separate species.
“While it is not unusual for new species to be discovered, it is rare to identify a new species of an animal this large,” said Pabst.
Pabst, professor of biology and marine biology, and McLellan, a researcher and director of the UNCW-based Marine Mammal Stranding Program, have collectively responded to thousands of cetacean strandings over the years. Both study marine mammals and have engaged hundreds of students through their active involvement in the stranding program. Students are an integral part of the team, they said.
“The stranding program is a great example of hands-on science,” McLellan said, which includes UNCW student volunteers. Many program volunteers have gone on to prestigious careers studying marine mammals and mentoring their own students and volunteers. Groundbreaking research and applied learning opportunities are key components of UNCW’s Strategic Plan.
Genetic samples collected by the UNCW team from the whale at Carolina Beach, which had become entangled in fishing gear and starved, were sent to the NOAA lab in La Jolla, California, where it was identified at the very least as a new subspecies of Bryde’s whale. Students and volunteers, working with the Town of Carolina Beach, buried the entire skeleton onsite so that later it could be exhumed and collected by colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.
“The work of Dr. Pabst, Mr. McLellan and the Marine Mammal Stranding Team provides a valuable service to the community, creates opportunities for primary discoveries such as identifying new species, and generates enriching research experiences for the engaged students,” said Stuart Borrett, UNCW associate provost for research and innovation. “The team is one of the many programs that distinguish UNCW.” 
The process for identifying a new species is complicated and can take many years. In 2014, Rosel and Wilcox concluded that a group of whales living in the Gulf of Mexico belonged to an evolutionarily distinct lineage of Bryde’s whale, which lives in temperate to tropical waters around the world. Six years later, Rice’s whale was identified as a separate species altogether.
The Bryde’s whale and the newly identified Rice’s whale are baleen whales, meaning they sieve food, such as krill, plankton and small fish from large volumes of sea water via bristly baleen plates. The Carolina Beach whale was among those that fit the genetic profile. Rice’s whale was named in honor of a longtime National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who first documented the Gulf’s resident whales.
“This is a species of which there are very few individuals,” noted Pabst. Fewer than 50 are believed to exist.
The UNCW team’s response to the 2003 stranding was one of the first under a grant through NOAA’s newly developed Prescott Stranding Assistance Program. Although their work with the stranding team involves necropsies and related research, the goal of the research is conservation and management of species and their habitats, said McLellan.
The veteran researchers, who met while working at the Smithsonian Institution and came to UNCW in 1995, remain as enthusiastic as ever about their work. Each discovery and response by the Marine Mammal Stranding Program is still exhilarating after all these years.
“I still cannot believe there is a new species of whale that was found in the southeastern United States,” said McLellan.
-- Tricia Vance

Juvenille whale entangled in fishing gear.
This juvenile whale washed up at Carolina Beach in March 2003. The whale, which starved after becoming entangled in fishing gear, has been identified as a member of a newly discovered subspecies, Rice's Whale. The UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Team, including Bill McLellan and Ann Pabst, performed the necropsy and collected a DNA sample that NOAA researchers used to identify the whale.