Scientists locate mystery killer whales

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  • For years, there have been stories and photographs of “odd-looking” killer whales lurking in some of the roughest parts of the sub-Antarctic seas.
  • Named Type D killer whales, these whales are quite different from regular killer whales: they’re smaller, their heads are more rounded, they have considerably smaller white eye patches, and their dorsal fins are narrower with sharp pointed tips.
  • Now, researchers have finally located and filmed a group of these mysterious Type D killer whales off the tip of southern Chile.
  • They have also collected tiny bits of tissues from the animals that they hope to use to analyze the whales’ DNA to see if they’re actually new to science.

For years, there have been stories and photographs of “odd-looking” killer whales lurking in some of the roughest parts of the sub-Antarctic seas. They’ve been spotted by fishermen on passing boats, photographed by tourists, and were once recorded in a mass beach stranding in New Zealand more than 60 years ago. From these bits of scattered evidence, researchers gathered that the whales, named Type D killer whales, are quite different from regular killer whales (Orcinus orca): they’re smaller, their heads are more rounded, resembling those of pilot whales (Globicephala spp.), they have considerably smaller white eye patches, and their dorsal fins are narrower, with sharp pointed tips.

Now, researchers have finally located and filmed a group of these mysterious Type D killer whales off the tip of southern Chile. They’ve also collected tiny bits of tissues from these whales, using a type of dart that doesn’t harm the animal, from which they plan to analyze the whales’ DNA to see if they’re actually new to science.

“We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come,” Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, said in a statement. “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.”

Top: An illustration of a “regular” adult male killer whale; note the size of the white eye patch, the less rounded head and dorsal fin shape. Bottom: An illustration of an adult male Type D killer whale, with smaller eye patch, more rounded head, and narrower, more pointed dorsal fin. Images by Uko Gorter/NOAA.

It was in January this year when Pitman and several international whale experts, in collaboration with Chile’s Centro de Conservación Cetácea, renewed their search for the elusive Type D killer whales. They set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina, on the research vessel Australis, heading to the area where local fishermen had complained of these whales stealing fish from their lines. But it took several days of waiting before the team finally found the animals. Or rather, the whales found them.

A group of about 30 whales approached the vessel many times, the researchers say, inspecting the underwater microphone and cameras the team had lowered into the water.

“It’s like seeing a dinosaur or something. It’s one of those moments that biologists live for. And I said, ‘That’s it! That’s the New Zealand killer whale!’” Pitman told NPR.

From what’s known so far, the Type D killer whales seem to live around Antarctica but avoid the coldest waters. For this reason, researchers suggest “sub-Antarctic killer whale” as a common name for these whales. It also appears these whales live between the latitudes of the 40th and 50th parallels, known as the Roaring 40s and the Furious 50s for their extremely strong winds and inhospitable weather.

“No wonder it was almost unknown to science,” the NOAA statement says.

A rare photo of Type D killer whales, showing their blunt heads and tiny eye patches. Image by J.P. Sylvestre/NOAA.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment



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