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Scientists Discover Different Kind Of Killer Whale Off Chile

March 13, 2019 1:38 p.m.

GUEST:Robert Pitman, marine ecologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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He'd heard about it for years. An elusive killer whale rarely seen yet living in one of the most dangerous oceans on Earth. After decades of mystery a group of scientists led by marine biologist Bob Pittman spotted what is called the Type D whale living off the coast of Chile in the Antarctic Ocean. Right now they are analyzing DNA they collected from it. It was a dangerous expedition that ended with the Western discovery of one of the largest animals on the planet. Pittman is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and he just got back from that expedition in South America.

Bob welcome. Glad to be here.

So when did scientists first begin to believe there may be a new kind of killer whale in 1955 17 killer whales stranded in New Zealand and they were a very different looking killer whale. They had big rounded heads and a little tiny eye patch they were smaller than regular killer whales and those of us that work with killer whales had known about these things for decades and couldn't quite figure out what was going on there because none of us had ever seen anything like it. And then in 2005 exactly 50 years later I was at a meeting in Seattle of killer whale researchers and a French scientists working on killer whales in crows Island in South Indian Ocean showed me some pictures.

He said we've seen these whales taking fish off fishermen's lines and they are very odd looking. And I looked down at his whales and there they were. The New Zealand whales 50 years later and I said those are the whales from New Zealand. And he he knew what I meant because most killer whale researchers had seen those pictures before.

So so you recently put a team of researchers together to go to Cape Horn in Chile. Tell us more about the expedition and what you found out.

Well we got an offer of a boat for three weeks to go down and look for Type D killer whale because I'd got some information that the local fishermen had been seeing and fairly regular off off of Cape Horn. They steal fish off fishing lines there. So we had an idea about where to go. We know the weather down there is horrendous. That's the roaring 40s and the furious 50s. And so we figured if we had three weeks we might get a day or two to look around for these things and we did get exactly two days of good weather.

Well we had one day good weather didn't see anything and then we had a few hours of good weather two weeks in and we happened to find them that morning. So it was the weather was horrific there. We spent at one time we spent eight days at anchor while the wind blew 40 50 knots. We're beginning to wonder if we're going to get out to see them.

Wow. And what was it like to finally see these whales up close after searching for so long.

For me personally you know these were photos that had been around for decades and then I'd seen other people's photos and I've been in Antarctica dozens of times always looking for this animal every time I go and I was beginning to wonder if if they even existed. And it was it's like seeing a live dinosaur. To me it was outrageous.

And so with these type D whales that you found you say they have a bulbous head so how do you know that those differences aren't just a genetic issue or a genetic deformity or something like that versus you know something that's naturally occurring pretty much that much of a change in an animal if it's not working for them they don't last very long these type D killer whales we know they're found all the way around the continent of Antarctica but in some sub Antarctic waters.

So we know that this is this is an adaptive trait for them.

And again I think it has to do with the diving and you say you were able to collect tissue samples how did you manage to take those samples exactly.

KAYE we've been collecting tissue samples at our lab from whales and dolphins for a couple of decades now and we use a crossbow. We fire a little dart that bounces off the the animal. Most of time they don't even respond. It's got a cutting head on it that takes a little plug of tissue about the size of a pencil eraser bounces off the animal and floats on the water and then we pick up the dart and take the tissue sample out. In this case especially interested in the genetic information so we can compare these genetically with other killer whales but with that tissue sample we can look at the pollutant loads in these animals.

We can look at it we can tell if there are males or females. We can tell if the females are pregnant. We can look at stable isotopes of fatty acids get some idea about where they're feeding what trophic level stuff so there's an immense amount of information that comes out of this little slip of tissue and I guess that all that information would then confirm whether this is a new species right. Hopefully killer whales are a little different from other animals because they're very social and culturally motivated they can actually choose not to interbreed with killer whales that look different so there's a big debate going on now about what's going on with killer whales speciation.

I always tell people if these were warblers they would definitely be different species but since their killer whales things are a little bit different so we're gonna have to hold off on that for a while.

You think there could be a lot more life on Earth that's just unknown to science.

There is but I think it's going to be more of these cryptic species. You know there's dolphins and whales out there that when I started doing this business 40 years ago we had 70 some species. Now we have 89 or something like that. So there is more life on Earth but it's it's gonna be a lot more these sort of cryptic species there'll be less of these very different looking animals like type D killer whales I think.

And why is it important for scientists to continue to search for and identify new species.

If you're going to protect animals in the ocean if you're going to manage them the very first thing you have to know is how many species there are. Because right now there's it's considered that there's a single species of killer whale in the ocean which means if you wipe out a population somewhere well we've got some others other places maybe we can transplant them or something like that. But if it turns out we have who knows five species of killer whales we don't know at this point then we're not gonna be able to do that and we can lose things permanently.

So is she do any kind of conservation work. The very first thing you have to do is know how many species you're dealing with. How many of them there are. How are they distributed.

I've been speaking with marine biologist Bob Pittman who is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bob thanks so much for joining us. Great to be here.