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CoastLine: What thousands of necropsies have taught UNCW marine mammal researchers and how they helped discover a new whale species

In March 2003, what researchers thought was a Bryde's Whale rolled into the Carolina Beach surf. Not until November 2020 did biologists confirm it was an entirely new species they dubbed Rice's Whale -- and critically endangered.

It was 18 years ago that a massive baleen whale carcass washed up on Carolina Beach. Just this year, two UNCW researchers who led that response and directed the necropsy are credited with helping to discover a new species of whale.

In November of 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that what marine biologists had thought was a Bryde's whale was actually a much more endangered and as-yet undiscovered species of whale.

Now known as Rice’s Whale, named after American Biologist Dale Rice, the whale is also one of the most critically-endangered whales in existence. Populations estimates have ranged from less than one hundred to under fifty.

The two researchers who led that response nearly two decades ago have continued to respond to strandings of whales and other marine mammals. And they say that, in fact, human impacts contribute to about 40% of strandings and are an important mortality factor for bottlenose dolphins along the North Carolina coast.

On this edition of CoastLine, we find out what kinds of stories the carcass of a dead marine mammal can tell and how these two people, who are not just professional partners but life partners, find inspiration in death and decay.

Ann Pabst is a Professor of Biology and Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is also Co-Director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Program in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology at UNCW.

William McLellan is a Research Associate at UNCW and Co-Director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Program in UNCW's Department of Biology and Marine Biology.

Marine Mammal Information Sheets