Local researchers possibly find new killer whale species

SAN DIEGO — An international team of researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday they may have found a new species of killer whale off the southern coast of Chile.

The team of researchers, scientists and oceanographers observed the whales in January off Cape Horn. The whales, called Type D, had become a subject of legend after being observed in the southern hemisphere by fisherman and tourists over the years but never in person by scientists.

A group of 17 Type D whales had also been observed while stranded on a beach in New Zealand in 1955, but researchers at the time attributed their features differentiating them from known killer whale species — rounded heads, narrower dorsal fins, a tiny white eyepatch — to a genetic glitch.

The research team, including Scripps adjunct professor and NOAA division director Lisa Ballance, collected three DNA samples in the form of small bits of skin collected harmlessly from the whales. The team battled storms off the coast of Cape Horn for eight days before finally spotting the whales during a break in the weather.

“In a word, the experience was intense,” Ballance said. “It was absolutely awesome, to be in such a remote and challenging environment in the company of a group of killer whales that look strikingly different from any others on the planet, and could be a different species.”

Once out at sea, the team spent roughly three hours with a pod of about 30 Type D whales. A hydroplane towed behind the ship captured the pod’s calls as well as visuals of the whales showing their unique markings and features.

Over the next few months, marine researchers plan to analyze the DNA samples to decipher the ways in which Type D whales are different from known killer whale species.

The research team believes it may be the largest animal on Earth still unknown to science.

“We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come,” said NOAA researcher Bob Pitman, the expedition’s organizer. “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.”

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