Researchers at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation are utilizing killer whale feces to gain insights into the health and well-being of the whales, as well as the ecosystems they inhabit. The studies are taking place at the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre in West Vancouver, in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Scientists have already sequenced the entire genomes of 142 northern resident killer whales, providing valuable information about their genetic diversity, dietary habits, and immune system health. They are now comparing this data with that of endangered southern resident killer whales, which has been compiled by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The comparison has revealed a potential connection between high levels of inbreeding and reduced lifespan within the southern resident population.
Using advanced genetic techniques, researchers are able to analyze factors such as mating systems, inbreeding impact, gene expression, and whale health. Furthermore, by examining both skin and fecal samples, the team can identify which group a particular whale belongs to, as well as more information about its prey. This allows scientists to better understand the dietary preferences of the whales, such as their predominant preference for Chinook salmon.
Interestingly, researchers have observed that the whales’ diets can vary depending on the time of year. For instance, a recent fecal sample analysis revealed that some whales had consumed a significant amount of sablefish. This supports earlier observational studies that had reported similar feeding habits.
With an estimated 74 southern resident killer whales remaining in the wild, the need for effective conservation measures is more pressing than ever. Through the collection and analysis of fecal samples, the research team aims to contribute valuable information that could lead to meaningful policy changes in whale conservation efforts.
Some of the future studies planned by the research team include investigating how the whales’ genes are affected by environmental changes and contamination responses. By using DNA methylation analysis, the scientists hope to gain a deeper understanding of how these mammals respond to different environmental stressors and how this knowledge might be applied in future conservation strategies.