Japanese fishermen have long told stories about the "karasu" or "raven," which is a rare beaked, dark whale but until recently, there has been no proof of them.
All of these could change as scientists discovered genetic proof that could provide scientific backup for the long-held tales. The karasu has been mistaken for the Baird's beaked whale, a close relative. Scientists said that the karasu is an entirely new whale species.
According to research molecular geneticist Phillip Morin from the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, the discovery is a "huge thing" and is also quite inexplicable that despite the number of people studying whales, they've never seen proof of the karasu before.
In 2013, a Japanese study suggested that the three whales that washed up in Japanese shores could be representatives of a different whale species. However, the study's sample size was too small and it was concluded that additional studies are needed to confirm such claims.
Morin followed up with an initiative that involved people from around the world to look for more samples of the alleged, new whale species. What they found were samples that were actually hidden in plain sight such as the Smithsonian display of a whale skull, which was mistaken for the Baird's beaked whale. According to Morin, a Japanese scientist spotted the incorrectly labeled whale skull during a museum visit.
Another clue was found on display at a high school in Alaska. While two more were discovered in the collection of the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, wherein they were incorrectly identified as Baird's whales.
Following the scavenger hunt for the new samples, a dead whale washed on the shores of the Alaska's Bering Sea, on the remote island called St. George in June 2014. According to Morin, the discovery of the dead whale in St. George is a vital piece of information because it provided new insights, especially since the samples on hand were quite small. It also gave new information on the length of the alleged mysterious new species as a full-grown adult animal, which is about two-thirds of the full length of the Baird's beaked whale.
Morin highlighted other differences from its close relative, such as a different shaped skull and a shorter beak. The dorsal fin also had a slightly different position and shape. Morin added that the new species are "pretty cryptic" and that they spend long periods of time in very deep waters.
"Discovering a new species of whale in 2016 is exciting but it also reveals how little we know and how much more work we have to do to truly understand these species," said Erich Hoyt from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the United Kingdom and the Russian Cetacean Habitat Project co-director.
The new research was released in the Marine Mammal Science journal on July 26.