Researchers gathering more data on orcas
Many endangered killer whales spend time in the waters off Washington state. They are among the most closely studied wildlife. Now, the research on them is expected to get even more in depth.
Researchers already collect and analyze the whales' waste and breath samples. Those breath samples are taken when they exhale. Satellite tags track where they swim in winter. And drone images provide details about body shape, size and condition.
Wildlife veterinarians and other experts want to take that information and create personal health records for each southern resident killer whale. About eighty-four of the animals typically appear in Puget Sound. They are found there from spring to fall.
The idea is to use the records to monitor the orcas' health trends. The records would allow that for individual whales and as a population. It's similar to people having one medical record as they move from one doctor to the next.
"The goal is to really start getting a lot of data. (And) pull them together in a way that permits easier analysis," said Joe Gaydos. He is a wildlife veterinarian. He works at the University of California, Davis. He also is chief scientist with the SeaDoc Society. The society is part of the university's School of Veterinary Medicine.
"Ultimately, the real benefit of any health record is to help make (management) decisions," he added.
One example is when an orca appears emaciated. Or another example is when an orca is in bad shape during certain times of the year. Wildlife managers can access the animal's health history. The managers can see what's going on. Then they can decide what they can do about it, Gaydos said.
Understanding the factors that affect an orca's health will ultimately help pinpoint the key threats. And it will help them learn how to reduce those threats.
"It will be really powerful to rule out things that aren't important. And focus in on what's really important," said Lynne Barre. She is with NOAA Fisheries.
She said that will help inform research and management decisions in the long run. The project aims to pull together data on behavior, reproductive success, skin diseases and other study areas. That will allow for integrated analysis, she said.
Scientists have a lot of data now. They can connect the dots to get meaningful answers, said Brad Hanson. He is an NOAA Fisheries wildlife biologist.
More than two dozen wildlife experts met in Seattle on March 29. They were there to develop plans for health records for the orcas. The meeting was sponsored by SeaDoc Society. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries was another sponsor. And the National Marine Mammal Foundation also sponsored the meeting.
Many details are still being worked out. Those details include who will maintain the data. And, how people will access it. An initial database is expected to be launched this summer. It will use readily available information. The info will include sex, age, gender and other details, Gaydos said. Other information would be added next year.
Elsewhere, scientists have studied individual animals. They monitor the animals' health. The scientists have examined North Atlantic right whales. Using a database of hundreds of thousands of photographs taken over decades, researchers at the New England Aquarium and others have studied the body and skin conditions of about 400 individual right whales to assess their health.
Individual Puget Sound orcas are identified by unique black and white markings or variations in their fin shapes. Each whale is given a number and a name. The Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island keeps the federal government's annual census on the population.
The three orca families are the J, K, and L pods. They are genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales. They use unique calls to communicate with one another. They eat salmon rather than marine mammals.
Their numbers have fluctuated in recent decades. This has occurred as they have faced threats from pollution, lack of prey and disturbance from boats. The killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are personal records more helpful than group records?
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