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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The endangered killer whales that spend time in the waters off Washington state are among the most closely studied wildlife. The research is expected to get even more in depth.
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. About 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.
"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.
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. The managers can see what's going on. Then they can decide what they could do about it, Gaydos said.
Understanding the factors that affect an orca's health will ultimately help pinpoint the key threats and how to reduce them.
"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 enough data that they can now 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 and the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
Many details are still being worked out. They 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 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. 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.

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

  • kelsier-
    4/05/2016 - 11:04 a.m.

    I think what researchers are doing is pretty cool you get to see each element of a whales life and they still get to be free and live in the wild. I think letting them be free probably make the whales life longer and less depressing.

    • coreyh-hei
      4/12/2016 - 10:50 a.m.

      It is good because you gave text evidence. Also it good because you told us why you think personal records are better than group records.

      • nicko2-hei
        4/12/2016 - 12:14 p.m.

        I agree with you

    • coreyh-hei
      4/12/2016 - 10:52 a.m.

      I think personal records are good because you now it unlike records other people put them so it is harder to find if it is true or not.

    • cammeronm2-hei
      4/12/2016 - 03:56 p.m.

      I think that you need to reread the question and answer the question again.

  • mavis-hay
    4/06/2016 - 08:37 a.m.

    Personal records are more helpful than group records because if you look at a whale's personal record you can see how many individual whales have conditions similar to the others. The article says,"Researchers already collect and analyze 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." The researchers are seeing what they can do to prevent the things that are making these animals sick or in bad health. If one whale starts getting sick and it does the same activities or eats the same diet as other whales, most likely the others will start to get sick or in bad condition. After a while, the ones that are sick could die, and soon there won't be many whales left. The researchers need to look through the personal records because of what could happen.

  • tylers-2-coo
    4/06/2016 - 10:53 a.m.

    I think what researthers are doing is cool they see each element of a whales life. They get to be free and live in the wild. Letting them be free will probably increase the population of a whales life.

  • ben0424-yyca-byo
    4/06/2016 - 10:26 p.m.

    This is a good way to study orcas. Orcas are endangered, and are needed to be researched to find how to make their population better. We don't want the orcas to go extinct like other animals. People also like orcas in shows, and other ways. The name "killer whale" seems kind of peculiar. They don't really "kill" instead of maybe hunting. They should be named to a more friendly name.
    Critical Thinking Question Answer: Personal records are more helpful than group records because they are able to identify the problems when they get a disease. With group records, you have to find a certain orca to find the disease.

  • mollym2011-
    4/07/2016 - 11:13 a.m.

    I would recommend this article to another student because it explains what and how much effort researchers do to help these endangered killer whales. I think that when the researchers keep personal or singular records of an individual whale is better than a group record because than you can study each whale based on their previous health records.

  • jontet-wes
    4/07/2016 - 02:39 p.m.

    I think whales are good because whales can be whales.

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