Orca breaching water

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This may be the most exciting orca news since Willy was freed. A team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has finally filmed Type D killer whales in the wild. As well as setting rumors to rest that this type of orca is merely a genetic mutation occurring in just a few killer whales, the new findings leave little doubt these type of orca make up a new species.

The encounter was magical, but not accidental. The team sought the killer whales in the tempestuous waters of Chile’s Cape Horn. One of the study co-authors, marine biologist Bob Pitman, has been hoping for just such a breakthrough over 14 years of piecing together the story of the Type D orca. This time, it happened. A 30-strong pod of the usually elusive killer whales not only got within view of the researchers’ vessel, the Australis, they also stuck around for about three hours. That was all the time the squad needed to collect three skin and blubber biopsies that will be subjected to DNA studies. Along with magnificent footage of the orcas, the team now has a substantial basis to determine if these orcas are their own species. Pitman said it was “highly likely” now that the deadly but apparently shy Type Ds got close enough for a DNA test.

The Elusive Type D Killer Whale

The Type D orca has a blunt, round head and almost no discernible eyepatch. They look so different and were so seldom seen that at first scientists figured they were just a couple of mutated killer whale individuals. The NOAA team had spotted Type D killer whales six times since 2004, but the legend of this aquatic Big Foot dates back much further. The sightings were mostly considered fish stories (though whales are of course mammals) from Southern Hemisphere fisherman and villagers.

In 1955, though, a pod of Type D orcas washed up in Paraparaumu, New Zealand, victims of a tragic but largely mysterious stranding. This did eventually lead to Pitman and some other NOAA researchers sequencing the genome in 2010. Along with some other photos and descriptions, the team published a Type D orca study in Polar Biology that same year. But the wild and alive DNA eluded human scrutiny until March 2019.

How Type D Differs From Typical Orcas

All orcas are toothed whales and the largest members of the oceanic dolphin family. Wild orca research has really gotten hot in the past few decades, and the expansion has made researchers conclude there are distinct “ecotypes,” meaning orcas that differ in size and appearance. They do not interbreed with other ecotypes and rarely interact with each other. Other distinguishing characteristics include their preferred menus, be that fish or seals or whatnot. They also are separated by the way they behave, forage and form social groups. Each ecotype is also distinct genetically.

Typical orcas are much bigger and longer than Type D and their fins aren’t as pointed. There are already other identified ecotypes different from typical orcas, though. Like Type D orcas, three of the most common distinct ecotypes also live in the Southern Hemisphere. Type A, for example, grows to 31 feet long and feeds on mink whales while Type B has a dashing horizontal eyepatch that’s twice the size of Type A’s. Type B is also famed for cooperatively making waves to capture their preferred prey, seals. Then there are Type C orcas, the smallest and the only ones with a forward slant to their eyepatch.

With DNA from this first live human-Type D orca encounter, the researchers should be able to take all the steps of the scientific process necessary to establish whether the Type D orca is a new species. The next step is a permit that will let them take the DNA out of Chile for testing. But after waiting 14 years to see this mysterious whale in the flesh, what’s a couple more days or weeks?