Mar 07

Mysterious new orca species likely identified

For the first time, scientists have filmed and studied the elusive “type D” killer whales in the wild.

At the bottom of the world, in some of the roughest seas, live mysterious killer whales that look very different from other orcas.

Now, for the first time, scientists have located and studied these animals in the wild. The orcas are “highly likely” to be a new species, says Robert Pitman, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The scientific team made the finding in January about 60 miles off the coast of Cape Horn, Chile, at the very tip of South America—a region with the “world’s worst weather,” Pitman adds.

These orcas, referred to as type D killer whales, were previously known from amateur photographs, fishermen’s descriptions, and one mass stranding—but never encountered in their natural state by cetacean experts. Unlike the other known types of orcas, they have a more rounded head, a pointier and narrower dorsal fin, and a very small white eye patch. They’re also several feet shorter in length, Pitman says.

The team, which set sail in the vessel Australis, ventured to an area where fishermen had recently spotted the animals, and dropped anchor for more than a week. Finally, a pod of about 25 killer whales approached the ship. The scientists filmed the predators below and above water, and took a small piece of skin and blubber from one, using a common, harmless research technique. They will soon study the orca’s DNA, which will establish once and for all whether or not it’s a new species. (The team is currently waiting on an export permit to take the sample out of Chile.)

Read the full National Geographic  article