Concept: Killer whale
Classic life-history theory predicts that menopause should not occur because there should be no selection for survival after the cessation of reproduction . Yet, human females routinely live 30 years after they have stopped reproducing . Only two other species-killer whales (Orcinus orca) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) [3, 4]-have comparable postreproductive lifespans. In theory, menopause can evolve via inclusive fitness benefits [5, 6], but the mechanisms by which postreproductive females help their kin remain enigmatic. One hypothesis is that postreproductive females act as repositories of ecological knowledge and thereby buffer kin against environmental hardships [7, 8]. We provide the first test of this hypothesis using a unique long-term dataset on wild resident killer whales. We show three key results. First, postreproductively aged females lead groups during collective movement in salmon foraging grounds. Second, leadership by postreproductively aged females is especially prominent in difficult years when salmon abundance is low. This finding is critical because salmon abundance drives both mortality and reproductive success in resident killer whales [9, 10]. Third, females are more likely to lead their sons than they are to lead their daughters, supporting predictions of recent models  of the evolution of menopause based on kinship dynamics. Our results show that postreproductive females may boost the fitness of kin through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female resident killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.
Infanticide can be an extreme result of sexual conflict that drives selection in species in which it occurs. It is a rarely observed behaviour but some evidence for its occurrence in cetaceans exists in three species of dolphin. Here we describe observations of an adult male killer whale (Orcinus orca) and his post-reproductive mother killing a neonate belonging to an unrelated female from the same population in the North Pacific. This is the first account of infanticide reported in killer whales and the only case committed jointly by an adult male and his mother outside of humans. Consistent with findings in other social mammals, we suggest that infanticide is a sexually selected behaviour in killer whales that could provide subsequent mating opportunities for the infanticidal male and thereby provide inclusive fitness benefits for his mother.
Understanding cumulative effects of multiple threats is key to guiding effective management to conserve endangered species. The critically endangered, Southern Resident killer whale population of the northeastern Pacific Ocean provides a data-rich case to explore anthropogenic threats on population viability. Primary threats include: limitation of preferred prey, Chinook salmon; anthropogenic noise and disturbance, which reduce foraging efficiency; and high levels of stored contaminants, including PCBs. We constructed a population viability analysis to explore possible demographic trajectories and the relative importance of anthropogenic stressors. The population is fragile, with no growth projected under current conditions, and decline expected if new or increased threats are imposed. Improvements in fecundity and calf survival are needed to reach a conservation objective of 2.3% annual population growth. Prey limitation is the most important factor affecting population growth. However, to meet recovery targets through prey management alone, Chinook abundance would have to be sustained near the highest levels since the 1970s. The most optimistic mitigation of noise and contaminants would make the difference between a declining and increasing population, but would be insufficient to reach recovery targets. Reducing acoustic disturbance by 50% combined with increasing Chinook by 15% would allow the population to reach 2.3% growth.
Many marine mammal predators, particularly pinnipeds, have increased in abundance in recent decades, generating new challenges for balancing human uses with recovery goals via ecosystem-based management. We used a spatio-temporal bioenergetics model of the Northeast Pacific Ocean to quantify how predation by three species of pinnipeds and killer whales (Orcinus orca) on Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) has changed since the 1970s along the west coast of North America, and compare these estimates to salmon fisheries. We find that from 1975 to 2015, biomass of Chinook salmon consumed by pinnipeds and killer whales increased from 6,100 to 15,200 metric tons (from 5 to 31.5 million individual salmon). Though there is variation across the regions in our model, overall, killer whales consume the largest biomass of Chinook salmon, but harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) consume the largest number of individuals. The decrease in adult Chinook salmon harvest from 1975-2015 was 16,400 to 9,600 metric tons. Thus, Chinook salmon removals (harvest + consumption) increased in the past 40 years despite catch reductions by fisheries, due to consumption by recovering pinnipeds and endangered killer whales. Long-term management strategies for Chinook salmon will need to consider potential conflicts between rebounding predators or endangered predators and prey.
Whale watching has become increasingly popular as an ecotourism activity around the globe and is beneficial for environmental education and local economies. Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) comprise an endangered population that is frequently observed by a large whale watching fleet in the inland waters of Washington state and British Columbia. One of the factors identified as a risk to recovery for the population is the effect of vessels and associated noise. An examination of the effects of vessels and associated noise on whale behavior utilized novel equipment to address limitations of previous studies. Digital acoustic recording tags (DTAGs) measured the noise levels the tagged whales received while laser positioning systems allowed collection of geo-referenced data for tagged whales and all vessels within 1000 m of the tagged whale. The objective of the current study was to compare vessel data and DTAG recordings to relate vessel traffic to the ambient noise received by tagged whales. Two analyses were conducted, one including all recording intervals, and one that excluded intervals when only the research vessel was present. For all data, significant predictors of noise levels were length (inverse relationship), number of propellers, and vessel speed, but only 15% of the variation in noise was explained by this model. When research-vessel-only intervals were excluded, vessel speed was the only significant predictor of noise levels, and explained 42% of the variation. Simple linear regressions (ignoring covariates) found that average vessel speed and number of propellers were the only significant correlates with noise levels. We conclude that vessel speed is the most important predictor of noise levels received by whales in this study. Thus, measures that reduce vessel speed in the vicinity of killer whales would reduce noise exposure in this population.
The difficulties associated with detecting population boundaries have long constrained the conservation and management of highly mobile, wide-ranging marine species, such as killer whales (Orcinus orca). In this study, we use data from 26 nuclear microsatellite loci and mitochondrial DNA sequences (988bp) to test a priori hypotheses about population subdivisions generated from a decade of killer whale surveys across the northern North Pacific. A total of 462 remote skin biopsies were collected from wild killer whales primarily between 2001 and 2010 from the northern Gulf of Alaska to the Sea of Okhotsk, representing both the piscivorous “resident” and the mammal-eating “transient” (or Bigg’s) killer whales. Divergence of the 2 ecotypes was supported by both mtDNA and microsatellites. Geographic patterns of genetic differentiation were supported by significant regions of genetic discontinuity, providing evidence of population structuring within both ecotypes and corroborating direct observations of restricted movements of individual whales. In the Aleutian Islands (Alaska), subpopulations, or groups with significantly different mtDNA and microsatellite allele frequencies, were largely delimited by major oceanographic boundaries for resident killer whales. Although Amchitka Pass represented a major subdivision for transient killer whales between the central and western Aleutian Islands, several smaller subpopulations were evident throughout the eastern Aleutians and Bering Sea. Support for seasonally sympatric transient subpopulations around Unimak Island suggests isolating mechanisms other than geographic distance within this highly mobile top predator.
The Southern Resident killer whale population (Orcinus orca) was listed as endangered in 2005 and shows little sign of recovery. These fish eating whales feed primarily on endangered Chinook salmon. Population growth is constrained by low offspring production for the number of reproductive females in the population. Lack of prey, increased toxins and vessel disturbance have been listed as potential causes of the whale’s decline, but partitioning these pressures has been difficult. We validated and applied temporal measures of progesterone and testosterone metabolites to assess occurrence, stage and health of pregnancy from genotyped killer whale feces collected using detection dogs. Thyroid and glucocorticoid hormone metabolites were measured from these same samples to assess physiological stress. These methods enabled us to assess pregnancy occurrence and failure as well as how pregnancy success was temporally impacted by nutritional and other stressors, between 2008 and 2014. Up to 69% of all detectable pregnancies were unsuccessful; of these, up to 33% failed relatively late in gestation or immediately post-partum, when the cost is especially high. Low availability of Chinook salmon appears to be an important stressor among these fish-eating whales as well as a significant cause of late pregnancy failure, including unobserved perinatal loss. However, release of lipophilic toxicants during fat metabolism in the nutritionally deprived animals may also provide a contributor to these cumulative effects. Results point to the importance of promoting Chinook salmon recovery to enhance population growth of Southern Resident killer whales. The physiological measures used in this study can also be used to monitor the success of actions aimed at promoting adaptive management of this important apex predator to the Pacific Northwest.
In the Salish Sea, the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) is a high trophic indicator of ecosystem health. Three major threats have been identified for this population: reduced prey availability, anthropogenic contaminants, and marine vessel disturbances. These perturbations can culminate in significant morbidity and mortality, usually associated with secondary infections that have a predilection to the respiratory system. To characterize the composition of the respiratory microbiota and identify recognized pathogens of SRKW, exhaled breath samples were collected between 2006-2009 and analyzed for bacteria, fungi and viruses using (1) culture-dependent, targeted PCR-based methodologies and (2) taxonomically broad, non-culture dependent PCR-based methodologies. Results were compared with sea surface microlayer (SML) samples to characterize the respective microbial constituents. An array of bacteria and fungi in breath and SML samples were identified, as well as microorganisms that exhibited resistance to multiple antimicrobial agents. The SML microbes and respiratory microbiota carry a pathogenic risk which we propose as an additional, fourth putative stressor (pathogens), which may adversely impact the endangered SRKW population.
Observations of killer whales (Orcinus orca) feeding on the remains of beaked whales have been previously documented; however, to date, there has been no published account of killer whales actively preying upon beaked whales. This article describes the first field observations of killer whales interacting with, hunting and preying upon beaked whales (Mesoplodon spp.) on four separate occasions during 2014, 2015 and 2016 in the Bremer Sub-Basin, off the south coast of Western Australia.
Estimating diet composition is important for understanding interactions between predators and prey and thus illuminating ecosystem function. The diet of many species, however, is difficult to observe directly. Genetic analysis of fecal material collected in the field is therefore a useful tool for gaining insight into wild animal diets. In this study, we used high-throughput DNA sequencing to quantitatively estimate the diet composition of an endangered population of wild killer whales (Orcinus orca) in their summer range in the Salish Sea. We combined 175 fecal samples collected between May and September from five years between 2006 and 2011 into 13 sample groups. Two known DNA composition control groups were also created. Each group was sequenced at a ~330bp segment of the 16s gene in the mitochondrial genome using an Illumina MiSeq sequencing system. After several quality controls steps, 4,987,107 individual sequences were aligned to a custom sequence database containing 19 potential fish prey species and the most likely species of each fecal-derived sequence was determined. Based on these alignments, salmonids made up >98.6% of the total sequences and thus of the inferred diet. Of the six salmonid species, Chinook salmon made up 79.5% of the sequences, followed by coho salmon (15%). Over all years, a clear pattern emerged with Chinook salmon dominating the estimated diet early in the summer, and coho salmon contributing an average of >40% of the diet in late summer. Sockeye salmon appeared to be occasionally important, at >18% in some sample groups. Non-salmonids were rarely observed. Our results are consistent with earlier results based on surface prey remains, and confirm the importance of Chinook salmon in this population’s summer diet.