In January 2019, an international team of scientists working off the tip of southern Chile near Antarctica got their first live look at what might be a new species of killer whale. Called Type D, the whales were previously known only from a beach stranding more than 60 years ago, fishermen’s stories, and tourist photographs.
Genetic samples the team collected will help determine whether this animal, with its distinctly different color pattern and body shape, is indeed new to science.
Bob Pitman is a researcher from NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. Pitman said in a statement:
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.
The team’s encounter with the distinctive whales came after they spent more than a week at anchor, waiting out the perpetual storms of Cape Horn off southern Chile. It was here that the scientists collected three biopsy samples — tiny bits of skin harmlessly taken from the whales with a crossbow dart — from a group of Type D killer whales for later analysis.
Now the analysis has moved from the blustery Southern Ocean to the laboratory, where NOAA scientists will analyze DNA from the skin samples. Pitman said:
These samples hold the key to determining whether this form of killer whale represents a distinct species.
The first record of the unusual killer whales came in 1955, when 17 animals stranded on the coast of Paraparaumu, New Zealand. Compared to other killer whales, they had more rounded heads, a narrower and more pointed dorsal fin, and a tiny white eyepatch. No whales like this had ever been described before.
Bottom line: In January 2019, scientists captured footage of what might be a new species of killer whale off the tip of southern Chile near Antarctica.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.