Southern Resident killer whales, currently numbering 84, can be individually identified and are some of the best-studied marine mammals in the world. Researchers regularly collect important health data on them (including photographs of skin disease and body condition, as well as samples of feces, breath, blubber and skin). We even know their family history. Unfortunately, we've never compiled the data into records that permit us to easily assess their health, until now.
Just as your family doctor shares medical information with specialists, the challenge is to organize that data so that each animal has its own health record, allowing researchers to track the health of both individuals and the population as a whole.
On March 28 and 29th, SeaDoc -- with collaborators from the National Marine Mammal Foundation and NOAA Fisheries -- hosted killer whale health experts from aquariums, universities and non-profits from all over the US and Canada to design a record-keeping database and determine what metrics could be used to assess the health of individual animals. SeaDoc wildlife veterinarian and co-director of the UC Davis Gorilla Doctors program, Kirsten Gilardi, presented on decades of experience assessing the health of individual free-ranging endangered mountain gorillas.
Although it is a year or more out, researchers hope to eventually be able to provide annual hands-off checkups for killer whales.
This exciting project is supported by SeaDoc private donors, a matching grant from the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program (National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Sea World), and funding from NOAA Fisheries. Thank you SeaDoc donors for making this groundbreaking work possible.
This story was covered coast to coast and internationally, with more than 200 media outlets running the story. A sampling is below.
Banner photo: Killer whale. Photo courtesy of J. Gaydos.