Mitogenomic insights into a recently described and rarely observed killer whale morphotype


Identifying evolutionary divergent taxonomic units, e.g. species and subspecies, is important for conservation and evolutionary biology. The ‘type D’ killer whale, Orcinus orca, is a rarely observed morphotype with a pelagic, circumpolar subantarctic distribution, making dedicated research and therefore taxonomic study extremely difficult to date. In this study, we used DNA target enrichment hybridisation capture coupled to high throughput sequencing, to obtain the first DNA sequence from the only known museum specimen of this recently described morphotype. The high coverage, complete mitogenome sequence was compared to a previously published global dataset of 139 individuals, indicating that this type is highly divergent to all previously genetically sequenced killer whale forms. The estimated divergence time (390,000 years ago) from its most recent common ancestor with other extant killer whale lineages was the second oldest split within the killer whale phylogeny. This study provides the first genetic support of type D potentially being a distinct subspecies or species of killer whale, although further samples are needed to identify whether there is monophyly of mitogenome sequences and whether nuclear DNA also indicates reproductive isolation. These findings also highlight the value of natural history museum collections and new technologies to investigate the taxonomy of rare, cryptic or difficult to access species.

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Uko Gorter provided the illustrations. This work was funded by a Marie Curie Actions ITN Fellowship ‘KWAF10’ grant awarded to ADF and the Danish Basic Research Foundation ‘Geogenetics’ grant. We thank Jamie Watts and Jean-Pierre Sylvestre for sighting reports and photographs. We also thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for providing constructive feedback and useful comments.

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Correspondence to Andrew D. Foote.

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Foote, A.D., Morin, P.A., Pitman, R.L. et al. Mitogenomic insights into a recently described and rarely observed killer whale morphotype. Polar Biol 36, 1519–1523 (2013).

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  • Mitogenome
  • Target enrichment capture
  • Ancient DNA
  • Killer whale