A team of scientists has observed a group of whales off the southern coast of Chile that may be a new species of orca, NOAA announced yesterday (March 7). Whether these Type D killer whales, which differ from other orcas in their body shape and coloring, are a new species depends on the analysis of DNA the researchers collected.
The distinctive whales are a little smaller and have blunter heads and narrower and pointier dorsal fins than other varieties of Southern Hemisphere killer whales, which are all one species, labeled Types A, B, or C, according to The Associated Press. Type D whales also have a smaller white eye patch than the other whales. “This is the most different looking killer whale I’ve ever seen,” Robert Pitman, a NOAA marine ecologist who was part of the group that spotted the whales, tells the AP.
The unique whales were first noticed in 1955 when 17 of them were stranded on the coast of New Zealand. Scientists thought these stranded whales might be a small family of genetically distinct individuals, but photographs of other strange looking whales taken in 2005 in the Indian Ocean hinted that the animals might be more widespread, according to the NOAA article.
Pitman and colleagues began scouring photos taken by Antarctic tourists to look for images of the whales in the Southern Ocean. In tens of thousands of pictures, they saw six Type D killer whales, which they described in a 2010 Polar Biology paper.
In hopes of meeting the whales, Pitman and other scientists embarked on a voyage earlier this year. They received clues to the whales’ location from Chilean fisherman whose fish were being snatched by orcas.
After weeks of waiting and searching, the team found a group of about 30 whales, which approached their boat many times during the three hours spent in their midst. The team used a crossbow to grab tissue samples for DNA analysis, which Pitman says wouldn’t hurt the whales, likening the arrow to “a soda straw bouncing off a truck tire,” in the AP’s story.
It’s too early to say if the animals are a new species, which will be revealed by the Type D killer whales’ DNA. “We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come. Type D killer whales could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet and a clear indication of how little we know about life in our oceans,” says Pitman in the NOAA article.