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

  • nataliev-hol
    4/07/2016 - 07:50 p.m.

    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.

  • flynnm-612-
    4/08/2016 - 08:37 a.m.

    I think that personal records for whales are better than group records because if an individual whale is having health problems,they can look back at its own health record to see if they had any health problems in the past that may give a reason for it having health problems now.If they had to look at an entire group record to look for problems than it would be a lot harder to find one's individual needs and what exactly is going on with them at the moment because you have an entire group if whale records to sort through.

  • levenicel-Orv
    4/08/2016 - 03:46 p.m.

    wow i never new all these things about orcas you allways learn something new everday i cant believe they are still finding out more things about orcas i cant wait to learn the next thing about orcas

  • autianae-ste
    4/09/2016 - 07:56 a.m.

    I'm glad that there are people willing to study animals for their benefit and are actually attempting to make a change. There are so many animals that are either endangered or extinct that we could've prevented from happening. Some cases deal with human actions, such as pollution, hunting, etc.

  • elijahh2-hei
    4/11/2016 - 12:14 p.m.

    Personal records can determine your time and your own best and group records are based on everybody in that group.

    • aliyahd-hei
      4/12/2016 - 11:54 a.m.

      You have a point there because I know that I dislike having to do research in a group because some times I get stuck doing all the work and when I work by myself I push myself to get more than the others in the class.

    • areanar-hei
      4/12/2016 - 01:46 p.m.


  • jamaurianr-hei
    4/12/2016 - 10:59 a.m.

    They can find more about killer whales than group records. Group records think they can find more about whales but they can't. Personal records can give you more information than group records.

  • javantej2-hei
    4/12/2016 - 11:09 a.m.

    Personal records are better than group records because if you use a personal record they can only know about you and not the people in your groups thought of mind sequence.

  • maddier-ter
    4/12/2016 - 11:11 a.m.

    That is sad how since 2005 killer whales have been endangered. But I think it is good that some people are trying to help them. It is cool how they can do all this stuff with modern technology. We can save more animals from suffering. We soon could save the killer whales from extinction.

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