Researchers gathering more data on orcas
Researchers gathering more data on orcas A female resident orca whale breaches while swimming in Puget Sound near Bainbridge Island as seen from a federally permitted research vessel. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Researchers gathering more data on orcas
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Endangered killer whales spend time in the waters off Washington State. They are among the most closely studied wildlife.
Researchers already collect and analyze the whales' waste and breath samples taken when they exhale; satellite tags track where they swim in winter; and drone images provide details about body shape, size and condition.
Now, wildlife veterinarians and other experts want to take that information and create personal health records for each southern resident killer whale. Eighty-four of the animals typically appear in Puget Sound from spring to fall.
The idea is to use the records to monitor the orcas' health trends individually and as a population. It's similar to people having one medical record as they move from one doctor to the next or between specialists.
"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, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, and chief scientist with the SeaDoc Society, which 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.
For example, if an orca appears emaciated or is in bad shape during certain times of the year, wildlife managers can access the animal's health history to see what's going on and what they could do about it, he said.
Understanding the factors that affect an orca's health will ultimately help pinpoint the key threats and how to reduce them, experts say.
"It will be really powerful to rule out things that aren't important and focus in on what's really important," said Lynne Barre 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 to allow for integrated analysis, she said.
Scientists have enough data that they can now connect the dots to get meaningful answers, said Brad Hanson, an NOAA Fisheries wildlife biologist.
More than two dozen wildlife experts met in Seattle on March 29 to develop plans for health records for the orcas. The meeting was sponsored by SeaDoc Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
Many details are still being worked out, including who will maintain the data and how people will access it. But an initial database would be launched this summer using readily available information, such as sex, age, gender and other details, Gaydos said. Other information would be added next year.
Elsewhere, scientists have studied individual animals to monitor their health, including 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, and 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 families - the J, K, and L pods - are genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales. They use unique calls to communicate with one another and eat salmon rather than marine mammals.
Their numbers have fluctuated in recent decades as they have faced threats from pollution, lack of prey and disturbance from boats. They were listed as endangered in 2005.

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Why are personal records more helpful than group records?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    4/05/2016 - 12:50 a.m.

    The researchers might have been able to gather more data of Orcas, or known as killer whales, which researchers are able to gather while analyzing the data of killer whales by observing the killer whales out in the ocean. The people might have liked the killer whales that are appearing to their home after the winter had past by and which the people wouldn't be able to look at them in the winter. The researchers might have been able to get the satellite to track down the whales while the whales are going to their hibernation place for the winter that comes to them. People might have been able to get a lot of experts to be meeting up with the health of the killer whales that experts would need to analyze while the killer whales are still alive.
    Critical Thinking Question: Why are personal records more helpful than group records?
    Answer: Personal records are more helpful than group records because sometimes a person in a group has a different record than the other people which would start an argument about whose record is more reasonable.

  • clairel307-
    4/05/2016 - 11:14 a.m.

    I've been to Puget sound and all over Washington and I've never known that orcas live there. That's really cool. I think it's crazy that they can get so much information on these orcas with just some data and drones.

  • isabellaa-612-
    4/06/2016 - 08:42 a.m.

    Personal records are better than group records because if you are in a group and set a record it really might not be you at all. You might have done almost nothing. If it was you then you know you reached the goal.

  • TehyaWhite-Ste
    4/06/2016 - 01:07 p.m.

    Personal records will help the researchers see what each individual has and then see what the average is. This will help them see what is really affecting each animal and what they need to focus on.

  • briannec-ste
    4/13/2016 - 02:17 p.m.

    I would love to be able to go watch and study these animals, they are fascinating.

  • katier-lam
    4/19/2016 - 02:35 p.m.

    Personal records are more helpful than group records because with personal records, the scientists can monitor each orca individually and can help them and watch.

  • jordanh1-wal
    4/29/2016 - 09:00 a.m.

    I think the idea of having records on orcas is a good idea, today in the world animals lives are being threatened more and more, with decrease of habitats and poaching, orcas aren't exactly populous as they may should be, and some orcas are on the endangered species list. This might sound off, but in reality if anything were to happen to orcas in a certain area, we might get the heads up if it is because of the environment itself. A problem might occur but hopefully we can solve it and save the orcas' health. With how our society is now, orcas should be protected in that sense, we would want someone that is educated in many areas concerning us to be able to look after.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    7/24/2016 - 10:51 p.m.

    Personal records will be helpful in the effort to help the orca's population. They will allow scientists to individually view the dangers that harm the whales and the results of such dangers. In the end, scientists will be able to take the information gathered to try and find ways to protect the whales from that which is bringing down their numbers.

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