One of the most mysterious whales in the ocean has been captured on film for the first time. In fact, the footage comes from the first confirmed observations of the species in the wild.
Omura's whales were long mistaken for another species. Genetic data confirmed their uniqueness in 2003, but all of the information came from dead samples — whale bits left over from Japanese whaling expeditions and carcasses found stranded on shore. Small (between 33 and 38 feet long) and inconspicuous, live whales remained elusive.
In a study published recently in the Royal Society Open Science Journal, researchers report encounters with 44 groups of Omura's whales off the coast of Madagascar. When they first spotted the species in 2011, the marine biologists thought they must be mistaken.
"From the little information on their habitat and range, Omura's whales were not supposed to be in that part of the Indian Ocean," lead researcher Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium said in a statement.
But as the team spotted more and more whales with the Omura's unique jaw markings, they decided to track them down. Now, 18 skin biopsies have been used to confirm the genetic identity of the observed whales.
Since we know basically nothing about the species, Cerchio and his team have a lot to learn on future expeditions. They're hoping to figure out the unique behaviors of the species — including the significance of some songs they've recorded during mother and calf interactions. They also hope to figure out just how rare the species truly is. For now, they've been able to identify at least 25 individual whales by photograph. Let's hope there are lots more waiting to be counted.