Scientists Discover Long-Lost Orca Subspecies

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Orcas, popularly known as killer whales, inhabit every ocean on planet earth—but they don’t all look the same. Scientists recognize many different subsets of the species. Some are larger than typical, some are smaller, and others have differently shaped bodies and markings.

In 1955, photos of a pod of killer whales stranded on a New Zealand showed a very different-looking orca species. According to Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was interviewed by National Public Radio about the whales, “The whales (called Type D killer whales) were smaller than other killer whales, and they had rounded heads and pointier fins. And most importantly, they had a tiny eye patch. Killer whales have a white spot under each eye. These patches were unusually small in the Type D killer whales, in some cases almost nonexistent.”

In 2005, Pitman was at a conference and he saw a photo of an odd-looking killer whale swimming in the southern Indian Ocean. “And I looked down, and there they were, the 1955 New Zealand killer whales," Pitman recalls. Then he assembled a team to go look for them.

After seeking shelter from a storm inside Cape Horn, the team got a 12-hour respite and went looking for the Type D whales. As the sun was coming up over the horizon, the team found themselves surrounded by the Type D whales. "It's like seeing a dinosaur or something. It's one of those moments that biologists live for, Pitman says. “That's it! That's the New Zealand killer whale!”

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