For years scientists have heard about a rare and genetically-distinct species of orca that thrives in the rough waters near icy Antarctica. Tourists and fishermen have claimed to see this kind of whale, which is known as the Type D Orca. However, researchers never had enough convincing evidence to confirm that the sightings may be true. Until now.

The Type-D Orca Is Different

So, what is different enough in the Type D Orca? Biologically, this orca displays a number of genetic differences that many believe it should be classified on its own.

Outside of genetics, the whale has a very different visual appearance. It has the kind of thicker forehead that is usually seen in pilot whales with a narrower, pointed fin, and smaller teeth. Most visually notable are smaller white spots behind their eyes, much smaller than the eyespots that are found on other kinds of orcas.

Gathering Evidence

Researchers have been excited enough about the possibility of a new kind of orca that they never really gave up looking. This persistence has paid off in the last decade. In 2013, scientists had the ability to adequately analyze preserved tissue and tooth samples from one of the first sightings of the whale, a stranding nearly 60 years prior. The analysis confirmed that the stranded whales were genetically from others.

In addition to this, there were two more occasions when scientists were able to capture a pod of suspected Type D Orcas on video. In the most recent sighting, the best encounter yet, scientists followed a group of approximately 30 orcas for a few hours. They were able to capture the orcas’ vocalizations and get close enough to collect tissue samples using a non-invasive crossbow that was designed for the job.

Comparisons Of The Evidence Thrill Scientists

With all of the evidence they’d gathered, scientists had a lot to work with. They were able to compare the genetics of the tissue samples from the three groups and to contrast the vocalizations of the group on video with what they’d recorded from other whales. They could add this evidence to what they’d documented on the visual differences between whale groups. With this mounting evidence, they were hopeful that there was enough data to declare that Type D Orcas were a new breed of whale.

Are Type D Orcas Really Their Own Species?

Scientists are excited about what they’ve collected but there’s yet to be a firm decision to classify them as their own species. Scientific taxonomy, the classification of species, is a very specific practice. Experts want to be sure to get it right.

While many believe that the classifications of killer whales need to be evaluated, there’s a question about how to do it. Should Type D Orcas be their own classifications? Should other subspecies be identified also? In addition, scientists want to be sure that a species truly is different and that what they’ve identified can’t be attributed to a genetic anomaly.

More Complications: The Whales Are Hard To Find

A complicating factor in classifying these whales is that they’re not always easy to locate. They are rare and there’s not always enough of them to be seen frequently. Adding to this, the whales’ natural environment is in one of the most remote, least hospitable parts of the planet. It isn’t easy for scientists to travel to or set up observation activities should they suspect the existence of a pod.

The difficulty in locating the whales makes recent observations even more exciting. It is not every day when scientists can consider classifying a new animal, and the chance to do so with rare large marine mammals makes it better. The world is watching as scientists determine how to classify these animals, and other orcas, going forward.