A new species of killer whale?

Help EarthSky keep going! Please donate what you can to our annual crowd-funding campaign.

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.

Black-and-white killer whales splashing through a large wave in open sea.
A rare photo from 2011 of Type D killer whales showing their blunt heads and tiny eyepatches. Image via NOAA Fisheries/J.P. Sylvestre.

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.

Two killer whales, side view, showing differences.
View larger. | Top: An adult male ‘regular’ killer whale – note the size of the white eye patch, less rounded head and dorsal fin shape. Bottom: An adult male Type D killer whale – note the tiny eye patch, more rounded head, and more narrow, pointed dorsal fin. Image via NOAA Fisheries/Uko Gorter.

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.


Read more from NOAA Fisheries

March 15, 2019

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 

Eleanor Imster

View All