The Type D killer whale has been observed in the wild for the first time. Robert Pitman, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the discovery of the highly likely new species is “a clear indication of how little we know about life in our oceans.”
In January, NOAA scientist waited for a week off the coast of southern Chile in the storms of Cape Horn to see the whales.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Type D Orcas Were Discovered in the Southern Hemisphere
Scientists of team Australis took small samples of skin from the orcas to determine whether they are a new species. “They collected three biopsy samples—tiny bits of skin harmlessly taken from the whales with a crossbow dart—from a group of Type D killer whales,” according to NOAA.
“The team is currently waiting on an export permit to take the sample out of Chile,” reports National Geographic. The results of the samples will take a few months to process. The genetic research will keep scientist busy for years once the processing is complete.
“These samples hold the key to determining whether this form of killer whale represents a distinct species,” said Pitman.
2. The Whales Were Spotted About 60 Miles From Land
Pitman has been on the search for the Type D killer whale for 14 years. When they were discovered in one of the stormiest areas of the world, nerves were wearing thin. “To be honest, morale had dissipated a bit,” ecologist Jared Towers recounted the January mission in an interview, reports The Globe and Mail. “Our time was starting to run out.”
“The Australis spent three hours among a group of about 30 whales, which approached the vessel many times. When killer whale vocalization expert Rebecca Wellard towed a hydrophone behind the boat to record Type D calls, whales immediately came over to inspect it. From wide-angle cameras mounted on her hydrophone, she obtained revealing underwater images as the curious whales showed details of their unique color patterning and body shape,” according to NOAA.
Documented killer whales have larger white eye patches, less rounded head, and dorsal fin shape. Type D killer whales have a small eye patch, more rounded head, and narrower pointed dorsal fin.
3. Type D Might be a Unique Species
Killer whales are currently considered one species, but Type D might mark the discovery of a new one. Once the DNA is analyzed and other observations, the scientist will know. If not, they will be considered a sub-species.
“The first documented evidence of the Type D killer whale dates back to 1955 when 17 whales were stranded on the New Zealand coast,” reports The Globe and Mail. In the early 2000s, more people were able to capture images of the whales allowing Pittman to lead publication of a study in the journal Polar Biology.
4. Orca Diets Vary by Type
There are three types of orca in the North Pacific: resident, transient and offshore. But, NOAA says, “Those types can be separated into smaller populations. The organization notes, for instance, that there are four populations of resident whales each with ‘its own unique diet, behaviors, social structure and habitat,'” reports Azula.
Preferred prey is part of what denotes various orca sub-species. There are three other types of Southern Hemisphere orcas, Types A, B, & C, with B having two subgroups. Type A orcas get up to 31 feet in length and hunt minke whale. Large Type B orcas eat seals in the Antarctic continent. Less is known about the Type C orca diet, but they do eat penguins. Type D orcas have been seen eating Patagonian toothfish.
5. Orcas are Amazing
“They [Type D orcas] are pretty elusive. Part of the problem is they live in one of the most inhospitable parts of the planet, notorious for strong winds and huge seas, so it’s really difficult to conduct cetacean [marine mammal] research there,” says whale ecologist Towers.
The big news is the collection of skin tissues means DNA, and together with their other observations, these are what scientists need to determine if the Type D orca is its own species.