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Scientists Think They May Have Found a New Kind of Killer Whale

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It was more than 60 years ago when a pod of unusual-looking killer whales washed up on a New Zealand beach. With their snubbed noses and pointy fins, scientists had a hunch that these were no ordinary orcas.

New research carried out in parts of the ocean off Chile may present viable proof that the animals are a distinct, never-before-discovered species of killer whales, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Bob Pitman, a researcher for NOAA, led the three-week expedition in Cape Horn, near the southern tip of Chile. There had earlier been reports that strange-looking orcas residing in those waters had been snatching the catch from fishermen.

During a three-hour window that came after eight days of bad weather hampering their voyage, Pitman and his crew found themselves surrounded by about 30 killer whales that were distinctly different from the orca family they were used to studying. Underwater images captured from wide-angle cameras revealed unique color patterns and body shape. They had rounder heads, shorter noses and narrower, pointier fins, and the white patches around their eyes were smaller than those of other killer whales.

By carefully shooting harmless crossbow darts towards the whales, which approached the vessel many times, the team was able to collect tiny skin samples for analysis.

The animals have been termed “Type D whales”, adding to a list of three types of whales confirmed to be residing in the Southern Hemisphere, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

“We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come. Type D killer whales could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet and a clear indication of how little we know about life in our oceans,” Pitman said.

The biopsy samples have been brought to the laboratory, where scientists will analyze DNA from their skin over the next few months.

“These samples hold the key to determining whether this form of killer whale represents a distinct species,” Pitman added.

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Write to Hillary Leung at hillary.leung@time.com