In Brief

DNA Sheds Light on Rare Killer Whale Type

orcas, orca facts, orca whales, killer whales, orca killer whales, orcinus orca, killer whale facts, killer whale pictures
The orca whale's large size and strength make it among the fastest marine mammals, able to reach speeds in excess of 30 knots (about 34 mph, or 56 kph). (Image credit: <a href="">Orca image</a> via Shutterstock)

Scientists have long suspected that the killer whale, Orcinus orca, may actually be four different species or subspecies based of subtle differences in appearance and variations in behavior. The rarest of them all is known as type D. These fat-headed orcas, marked by tiny white patches around their eyes, were only recently observed in the wild, some 50 years after they were first identified in photographs from a mass stranding in New Zealand.

The skeleton of one of the type D whales that washed ashore in 1955 ended up at a museum in Wellington. In a new study, scientists analyzed DNA from the bones, showing, yes, type D is likely a distinct subspecies or species. The research, detailed in the journal Polar Biology, also suggests type D diverged from other killer whales about 390,000 years ago, making it the second oldest orca type.

Antiquated as some collections may seem, natural history specimens in museums have proved valuable to researchers studying otherwise hard-to-access genetic material. Scientists recently turned to a musty 100-year-old stuffed passenger pigeon, hoping to reconstruct the DNA of the extinct bird and eventually bring it back to life through cloning.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.