The killer whale: most of us are familiar with these predators that lurk beneath our Earth’s seas in either frigid or tropical temperatures. Marked by their signature white eye patch, many of us can easily identify these marine carnivores.
This is why a new species of killer whales, quite different from the standard appearance, caught scientists’ attention.
Known as “Type D” whales, this species is several feet shorter than standard killer whales, and have more rounded heads, sharper fins, and smaller white markings around their eyes. Researchers recently caught a glimpse of these animals in January and hope to learn more about how they contrast from the killer whales we know.
Past Encounters with Whales
The first recorded sighting of this whale dates back to 1955 when 17 Type D killer whales were stranded on the coast of New Zealand. Although scientists were puzzled by the odd appearance of the whales, they thought it was caused by genetic mutations, rather than a completely different species!
In 2005, a French scientist showed Bob Pitman, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, photos of unique killer whales which were stealing fishermen’s catches in the Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. This intrigued Pitman; these killer whales looked exactly like the ones in New Zealand! Furthermore, the two locations were almost 5,500 kilometers away from each other, implying that the new species may be more widespread than originally believed.
Fascinated by this discovery, Pitman and his team of marine mammal experts continued to gather stories and photos from tourists and natives of the southern oceans. However, many of these photos were taken in the Roaring 40s and the Furious 50s, which are areas infamous for their treacherous winds and rough storms. This might explain why the Type D killer whale was hidden so well!
A Dangerous Voyage
In January of 2019, Pitman and his team set off in the vessel, Australis, about 60 miles off the coast of Cape Horn, Chile. They would be venturing into a region known to have dangerous weather conditions.
There were no whale sightings for an entire 12 hours. The team remained hopeful and tried again the next morning. At 5:50 AM, a pod of Type D killer whales was found circling around the boat! The underwater microphones that were attached to the ship resembled fishing lines and attracted the hungry whales.
The team spent three hours studying the new species, filming from above and below the water. They also fired harmless darts to analyze the whales' DNA. The analysis will help determine whether Type D is actually a new species or just an unusual subtype.
Regardless, this is a huge discovery and one that reminds us that there are still many mysteries in the ocean. As Pitman says, “it's like seeing a dinosaur or something. It's one of those moments that biologists live for.”'
Sources: National Geographic, NPR, Live Science