Honolulu, HI - A routine whale stranding in Hawaii reveals a rare species and also detects diseases that are not only new to the islands, but they are also deadly to marine mammals.
Unlike dolphins commonly spotted around our islands, their marine cousins, the beaked whales, are hardly ever seen.
The whales can be three times as long as a dolphin and weigh thousands more.
But, a stranding off Hana in 2010 left a young beaked whale in bad shape.
"What we learned from this rare whale was it was a very sick whale," said Kristi West, a Hawaii Pacific University biology professor.
The juvenile whale was starving from a broken jaw and died soon after stranding. Students with the HPU marine biology program then made an important discovery -- it was a Longman's beaked whale.
"The Longman's beaked whales are one of the world's most poorly known whales," said West.
There weren't even pictures of it until 1999. But, along with discovering new details about a rare species, students found something more sinister.
Genetic testing revealed the whale was riddled with disease, and not just any disease.
"This Longman's beaked whale had morbillivirus, which is a disease not reported anywhere in the Central Pacific," said West.
"Morbillivirus has been known to cause large die-offs of cetaceans around the world and seal species, actually," said David Schofield from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal Program.
Since that time, students in the HPU stranding program have found new diseases are reaching Hawaii's marine life and so are contaminants from around the Pacific.
"We have the potential to be looking at something that is a new exposure, a new threat to our populations," said HPU biology professor Brenda Jensen.
Genetic research continues on most of the remains of the Longman's beaked whale to give scientists even more information about this rare species. The skeleton is headed to the Smithsonian.
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