Scientists Find Mysterious Orca Species in the Southern Ocean

Scientists who ventured to one of the most inhospitable places on earth in search of an almost mythical orca had a chance encounter that enabled them to study these rare creatures in the wild for the first time.

These orcas, who are known as Type D orcas, are one of four known varieties of orca who live in the Antarctic, along with types A, B and C. Although they share similarities when it comes to their looks, Type D orcas are much smaller, and are characterized by their large bulbous foreheads, shorter and pointier dorsal fins and tiny white eyepatches behind their eyes.

They were only first identified in 1955 when a pod of 17 individuals was stranded at Paraparaumu Beach in New Zealand. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), scientists initially thought the group that stranded shared a unique genetic aberration that made them so distinct, but they’ve since been spotted a handful of times.

In 2005, French scientist Paul Tixier showed Bob Pitman, a researcher from NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center, images of these unique looking orcas that were taken in the southern Indian Ocean. After that Pitman and his colleagues began collecting images, and obtained enough to publish a study describing Type D orcas.

Even so, they remained elusive. Now, however, for the first time scientists have been able to study them, and are hoping to determine whether or not they’re an entirely new species of orca.

In January, an international team of scientists led by Pitman headed out on an expedition to search for them in Cape Horn off the coast of Chile, where local fisherman had reported them taking toothfish off their lines.

Despite days of inclement weather, they were thrilled to finally encounter a pod of about 30 individuals that approached their boat. Researchers believe they came to inspect a hydrophone with cameras that was placed in the water, which might have been mistaken for a fishing line.

During the encounter, scientists were able to film them, both above and below water, in addition to getting a skin sample that will be used to analyze their 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,” said Pitman.

Although there are different types of orcas, they’re all technically considered one species that’s formally known as Orcinus orca, but some, like these ones, may just be distinct enough to deserve their own scientific name.

While the results from the genetic analysis of these orcas isn’t yet available, it will add to our knowledge about them, and if they are if they are a new species that conclusion could be used to support conservation efforts.

Photo credit: J.P. Sylvestre/NOAA


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I have a real problem with the people who put irritating music over videos like these, particularly when the *lead scientist is trying to speak*!

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