Unknown Mini-whale That Japanese Knew About All Along Discovered in Pacific

The diminutive Berardius minimus is shorter and darker than other beaked whales and there may be another unacknowledged species out there too

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The new species of whale, Berardius minimus
The new species of whale, Berardius minimusCredit: Tadasu K. Yamada et al., Scientific Reports. August 30, 2019

An unknown species of pint-size beaked whale that Japanese whalers had been talking about all along has now been identified, Japanese and American scientists report. The finding brings the known number of species of Berardius beaked whales to three.

The newly recognized whale species has been dubbed Berardius minimus, Tadasu K. Yamada and his colleagues write in Scientific Reports. The other two are the Baird’s beaked whale and the Arnoux’s beaked whale, also known as the giant beaked whale.

To the consternation of conservationists, Japan formally withdrew as a member of the International Whaling Commission on June 30, and resumed commercial whaling activities the following day. The move follows a 30-year hiatus. The main targets of the Japanese whaling industry are minke whales and beaked whales – of which, we now realize, there are more types than originally thought.

Whalers from Kokkaido

In fact, whalers from Hokkaido had long recognized the uniqueness of the newly acknowledged species, and had a name for it: Kurotsuchikujir – the black beaked whale. To the layman’s eye, Baird’s and black beaked whales both look like large dolphins.

New "mini" beaked whale, on top; regular beaked whale, bottomCredit: Tadasu K. Yamada et al., Scientific Reports. August 30, 2019

Their meat is considered a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. After the first catch of the summer season in July, Misako Komiya, 86, a veteran whale meat consumer, told Reuters: “I’ll chop it really fine, simmer it with sugar, ginger, soy sauce and sake.”

The new species was identified from six beached specimens along the coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. “Just by looking at them, we could tell that they have a remarkably smaller body size, more spindle-shaped body, a shorter beak and darker color compared to known Berardius species,” said Yamada, a curator emeritus at Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science.

Arnoux’s “giant” beaked whale averages just over 11 meters (36 feet) in length. Baird’s beaked whales average about 10 meters in length, while the new one is 6.2 to 6.9 meters in length, according to the team of researchers from the National Museum of Nature and Science, Hokkaido University, Iwate University and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Its smaller length is why they named it minimus.

Same species?

Some zoologists have argued that the giant Arnoux beaked whale and the Baird’s beaked whale are the same species. A major argument against this is that the two live in completely different parts of the world: Arnoux in the freezing waters of the southern hemisphere, and Baird’s in the freezing waters of the North Pacific between Russia, Japan and the United States. Much mystery surrounds these cetaceans, not least because they dive deep, dive long and go places we normally don’t.

Arnoux's beaked whaleCredit: Ted Cheeseman / Tedcheese

“There are still many things we don’t know about B. minimus,” said Takashi F. Matsuishi of Hokkaido University, referring to Berardius minimus. “We still don’t know what adult females look like, and there are still many questions related to species distribution, for example.”

There are around 20 other species of beaked whales beyond the Berardius group, the smallest being only four meters in length. And among the Berardius, there could even be another unknown but strongly suspected species.

The Hokkaido whalers also refer to a whale they call Karasu, meaning crow. It may be a minimus as well. Perhaps science should pay more attention to local lore.