Scientists Believe They May Have Discovered A New Species Of Killer Whale

The ocean is full of mysteries, yet scientists rarely expect to find a new species, especially one as conspicuous as a killer whale. However, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an international team of researchers off the coast of Cape Horn, at the southernmost point of Chile, have spotted a new type of killer whale earlier this year.

The whale, named "Type D," may look like a standard killer whale to amateurs, but they have a distinct appearance with a more rounded head, more pointed dorsal fins, and smaller, tapered white markings around the eyes. The scientists first glimpsed the whales in January, and took a series of small, straightforward biopsies from the group to find out how they differ from traditional killer whales.

"We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come," Bob Pitman, a researcher from NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center, told Independent. "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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Researchers have been aware of the species for more than 60 years. According to NOAA, 17 of them were stranded on the coast of Paraparaumu, New Zealand, in 1955, yet since then, they have only been spotted on occasion by local fishermen, who have never been able to verify their uniqueness. Scientists thought that perhaps their distinctive features may have been caused by a genetic aberration only apparent in the New Zealand group.

In 2005, however, a French scientist showed Pitman pictures of unusual-looking killer whales that had been spotted poaching fish from commercial lines near Crozet Island in the southern Indian Ocean. The whales had the same eye patches and rounded heads as the ones seen in 1955. Unlike killer whale types A to C, the new species, which is slightly smaller, at 20ft to 25ft long, is believed to eat fish rather than marine mammals like seals.

The administration expects the DNA samples to provide further clues in a few months. Some experts, however, have been more reserved in their assessment. Michael McGowen, marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian Institution, said to consider the whale a new species without concrete genetic data is hasty. He added though, “I think it’s pretty remarkable that there are still many things out there in the ocean like a huge killer whale that we don’t know about.”

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Pitman explained that the whales are hard to detect since they inhabit "the most inhospitable waters on the planet."

"It's a good place to hide," he added.

After waiting for several weeks, the researchers had roughly 30 whales come directly to the boat, seemingly expecting to be fed. Using a crossbow, the scientists were able to extract tiny tissue samples.

Pitman said the whales are so large and their skin is so coarse that the arrow "is like a soda straw bouncing off a truck tyre" and does not cause pain.

"For 14 years I was looking for these guys," he said. "I finally got to see them."

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