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Scientists Discover A New Population of Blue Whales in the Indian Ocean

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Dec 25, 2020

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Image Credit: Robert Baldwin (Representational Image)

An international team of scientists has discovered a new population of blue whales in the Indian ocean, according to a study that identified the characteristic song of this whale population, which had never previously been documented.

The team of researchers heard an unfamiliar, previously undocumented whale song in their underwater recordings in 2017. A year later, at a meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, they presented their findings, and connected with other scientists who had come across the same whale song in their recordings. Then, they teamed up together to investigate further.

The resulting research was published in the journal Endangered Species Research last week, in which researchers describe a new population of whales that primarily inhabits the northwestern Indian Ocean. “It was quite remarkable to find a whale song in your data that was completely unique, never before reported, and recognize it as a blue whale,” Salvatore Cerchio, Ph.D., a marine mammal biologist at the African Aquatic Conservation Fund, who led the study, told the press.

In the Indian Ocean, nearly three sub-species of whales are believed to exist — and until now, they were structured into four populations. Each population of blue whales has a unique, signature song. “It’s like hearing different songs within a genre — Stevie Ray Vaughan versus B.B. King. It’s all blues, but you know the different styles…” Cerchio notes.


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Even though the discovery relies on acoustic, rather than genetic, data, the scientific community appears convinced that this population is indeed distinct. “I think it’s really compelling evidence… [The results are] very sound, no pun intended,” Alex Carbaugh-Rutland, who studies blue whales at Texas A&M University, but wasn’t involved in the study, told The New York Times. In fact, experts noted that rather than simply discovering a new population, the new research may have found a unique sub-species of blue whale itself — but further research, possibly beyond just acoustics, may be required to confirm that.

According to the IUCN Red List, the blue whale is presently endangered. The biggest threats to its life are vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gears, and climate-related concerns. While the knowledge of an altogether new population of whales is certainly a positive development, in light of the discovery, scientists are calling for stricter regulations on shipping and carbon emissions in the region — to protect the whales. “This is an urgent requirement in light of the wide range of threats to large whales related to expanding maritime industries in the region,” Andrew Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services, LLC, who was involved in the research, emphasized.

“[The discovery is] a great reminder that our oceans are still this very unexplored place,” Asha de Vos, a marine biologist who has studied blue whales in the Indian Ocean, but wasn’t part of the study, commented on the findings.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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