Health monitoring of endangered orcas by University of Washington moves to non-profit Wild Orca, transition ensures continuity and legacy.

Friday Harbor, Wash. (Nov 16, 2021)

Wild Orca announced important monitoring of the physiological health of the Southern Resident killer whales, through non-invasive techniques, including scent detection dogs, to become a new research program of Wild Orca.

For over 15 years, the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington (UW) has been a leader in killer whale health monitoring, due to Dr. Sam Wasser’s groundbreaking work in pioneering techniques to measure DNA, hormones and toxicants from feces, located non-invasively by scent detection dogs. Wild Orca’s Science & Research Director, Dr. Deborah Giles, has been a key UW team member since 2009, acting as vessel captain until 2019 when she became the scent dog handler and manager of field operations.

“As our work at UW is shifting focus to forensic science to aid in the research and investigation of transnational environmental crimes,“ said Dr. Wasser, “we have chosen to transfer our long-term health monitoring of this endangered population to the non-profit Wild Orca, ​​given Dr. Giles’ extensive experience with this program.”

Wild Orca’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Health Monitoring Program will continue to collect fecal samples, using the unique skills of dogs. This non-invasive method enables boat crew, dog and handler to collect floating feces for analysis, while remaining at a safe distance from the whales, minimizing stress and disturbance.

“The best way to understand what’s happening inside of a whale, is to look at what comes out,” said Dr. Giles, “and these samples contain a treasure trove that can be used by management agencies to aid their recovery.” She continued, “our team will focus on hormones, including both stress and reproductive health, and explore the impacts that contaminants such as PCBs have on their endocrine system. Given this population’s ongoing decline, it’s vital to ensure the continuation of this important work to address human impacts on this endangered species.”

In recent years, the Southern Resident killer whales have spent less time in the Salish Sea than at any time since studies began in 1976, and so Wild Orca will conduct research year-round, and enlarge the study area to gain a more complete picture of the health of this population, and the factors affecting their recovery. Wild Orca will also opportunistically collect data from other whales, offering a deeper understanding of Salish Sea ecosystem health, and help place the specific prey needs of the Southern Residents in context with the more plentiful and growing population of mammal eating Bigg’s killer whales, but also minke, humpback, and gray whales.

While research projects traditionally amass data over several years before publication, Wild Orca will take a more urgent approach, by providing data in near real-time to inform federal agencies and state officials of actionable health findings—for example, when fecal analysis confirms a new or lost pregnancy—so that the most appropriate, timely measures can be taken.

“It is our strategic goal to make health information available for all who can use it for the more immediate benefit of this population,” said Wild Orca Director, Michael Hays. “Our work to translate the most up-to-date available conservation research, and make it actionable, is key in Wild Orca’s strategy to saving the Southern Resident killer whales from extinction.”

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