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Scientists say these killer whales are distinct species. It could save them

Lila Seidman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

More than 150 years ago, a San Francisco whaler noticed something about killer whales that scientists may be about to formally recognize — at least in name.

Charles Melville Scammon submitted a manuscript to the Smithsonian in 1869 describing two species of killer whales inhabiting West Coast waters.

Now a new paper published in Royal Society Open Science uses genetic, behavioral, morphological and acoustic data to argue that the orcas in the North Pacific known as residents and transients are different enough to be distinct species. They propose using the same scientific names Scammon is believed to have coined in the 19th century.

Killer whales, found in all oceans, are currently considered one global species. The new proposed species would mark the first split of the ferocious apex predators, which, if approved, could have significant conservation and scientific implications — in addition to furthering a decades-long quest to properly classify the whales.

The two proposed species may look indistinguishable to the untrained eye, but there are subtle differences in their fins and markings — and many more unseen ones. They don’t speak the same “language” or nosh on the same food. And they have no interest in hanging out with one another, despite often dwelling in the same waters. Most significantly, researchers say, their DNA shows clear distinction.

Transients — also called Bigg’s killer whales — hunt seals and other marine mammals in small packs in expansive waters stretching from Southern California to the Arctic Circle. And they’re not very chatty while they sneak up on prey — they need to maintain stealth. They sport pointy, triangle-shaped dorsal fins with a solid white “saddle patch” behind it.

 

Residents, meanwhile, stick to fish — primarily Chinook salmon. They love to gab and hang out with the family. In fact, most offspring stay with their mothers their entire lives. Because fish don’t hear very well, they’re free to chatter as they chow down. Residents hew closer to coastlines, from Central California to southeast Alaska, where salmon congregate. Their fins tend to curve back toward the tail and intrusions of black sometimes extend into their saddle patches.

A third type of killer whale roams the Pacific, but less is known about it; these offshore whales live farther out and prey on sharks and other large fish. A recent study found evidence of another, previously unknown group in the open ocean.

Taxonomy, the scientific discipline of naming and classifying animals, is how we break down critters into species. It’s an intellectual exercise that has real-world consequences.

“We’re facing a global conservation crisis, losing species that we don’t even know exist,” said Phillip Morin, the new study’s lead author and a marine mammal geneticist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

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