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Killer Whale Named Old Tom helps reveal genetic ancestry through his teeth

In the 1800s, a group of orca including an adult male called Old Tom, became famous for helping European colonist whalers hunt baleen whales in Turembulerrer (Twofold Bay), Eden, Australia.

This relationship was considered to have first been documented by the European colonist whalers in 1844. However, authors of this paper collaborated with a Custodial Guardian of the local Thaua people and established that they had developed the connection with the orca prior to this. Their mutualistic relationship was named “The Law of the Tongue” as the orca ate the tongue of the whale whilst the Thaua people had harvested the rest.

Old Tom was found deceased in 1930, 2 years after whaling operations stopped. Researchers have since extracted DNA from Old Tom’s teeth to analyse and compare his DNA to a global dataset.

Results showed that he shared common ancestors from Australasia, the North Atlantic and North Pacific and that his genetics are most closely linked to New Zealand orca. However, most of his genetics did not match any modern-day orca populations. They concluded that the population of killer whales that frequented Eden do not have any descendants and are now extinct. However, Old Tom’s story and his group’s extraordinary relationship with man lives on.