In recent decades, several populations of killer whales have declined and some have become endangered. (A) Conceptual model of PCB bioaccumulation and magnification, leading to elevated PCB concentrations in killer whale populations. Some feed exclusively on fish, while others hunt marine mammals such as seals and other species of dolphin. "And you can imagine them thinking, 'Hey, where's our fish?' ", It was a slow start. affected. Ms. WILLIAMS: Followed lastly by sea otters, which, you know, still give you calories, but it's going to take you a bit to fill up on them. The primary focus of CWR research is the Southern Resident population of killer whales (orcas). The Navy estimates the southern population of killer whales in the Puget Sound region could be subject to the non-lethal take two to 51 times a year during the seven years of Navy activity. A rare photo of "type D" killer whales off South Georgia island, located between South America and Antarctica, shows the whales' blunt heads and tiny white eye patches. Local fishers had been complaining that some kind of whale was stripping fish off their lines. And a lot of people don't like hearing that. Approximately 2,500 killer whales live in the eastern North Pacific Ocean—home to the most well-studied killer whale populations. Ecologists say killer whales are eating the otters. It lives in parts of the ocean near Antarctica — and it could be the largest animal to have remained unidentified by biologists. These patches were unusually small, in some cases almost nonexistent. When the sea lion population crashed, they started fishing sea otters. Whale researchers spotted a baby orca swimming energetically with its mother west of San Juan Island on Friday. If there were more fish, they say, marine mammals and orcas would have plenty to eat. Then she multiplies that number by 365 days. But not everyone is buying the theory. Many people are trying to figure out why. PCBs first came under scrutiny in the 1970s, when birds, seals, and otter populations began rapidly decreasing. hide caption. (B) Global overview of PCB concentrations in killer whale blubber (ppm, parts per million).Light and dark green circles represent males and females, respectively. Scientists say they've found a mysterious type of killer whale that they've been searching for for years. Marine scientists suggest the Southern Resident orcas face problems centered on their diet. They are easy to identify because of their distinctive white and black colouring. Lifestyle. Washington’s sea otter population isn’t growing as fast as it once was. A new theory suggests a massive decline in seals, sea lions and sea otters in the North Pacific may have been triggered by over-fishing of great whales. " he says. Their ship at Cape Horn was trapped at anchor for eight days by howling weather. Orcas have mostly black skin with white patches. The team was able to snip off small tissue samples from the whales by firing a harmless dart, attached to a line, into their skin. The team had lowered an underwater microphone over the side on a long cable, with cameras attached. The domino effect reaches even farther. "From the beginning, I had referred to it as the needle in the haystack," she says. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record. "But that was definitely the way to bring them to the boat.". "It's a big ocean, and it's a rough ocean. Second, we evaluated the impact of killer whales on sea otter populations at Adak Island by contrasting otter population trends and sur-vival rates between Clam Lagoon, an area uniquely inaccessible to killer whales, and ad-jacent Kuluk Bay, an open coastal environment (Fig. But Jim Hasties, a federal biologist and a major proponent of the orca theory, says there is one solution that almost everyone can agree on: continuing efforts to rebuild the region's stocks of great whales. Since 1990, otter populations off the Aleutian islands have plummeted by as much as 80 percent. The chemicals were affecting their ability to reproduce. It is estimated that there are around 50,000 killer whales globally. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. It's one of those moments that biologists live for. They are found in all the world's oceans, from the cold of the Arctic to the tropical seas. Danita Delimont/Getty Images Reproduction and Offspring . As they documented more attacks, they began wondering why a 10-ton orca would waste its energy on a 65-pound sea otter. Sea otters are still classified as endangered. You know, they're killing cute, little, fuzzy sea otters.' NPR’s John Nielsen reported that this caused up to an 80% decline in the otter population. Killer whales, or Orcas (Orcinus orca) are toothed whales in the oceanic dolphin family. Terry Williams, a marine biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says that's because the killer whales eat them. And baby makes 75: newborn orca boosts endangered whale population. Before reading: Describe a sea otter. NIELSEN: Williams is part of a team that first observed these sneak attacks seven years ago when they were studying the otter die-off along the Aleutian Islands. Pitman adds: "It's like seeing a dinosaur or something. Mr. DeMASTER: The people who really know killer whales, who spend their lives following them around and studying them--they just don't find any evidence that large whales are an important part of their diet. Orcas were eating otters because the really big whales they used to eat were nearly wiped out by commercial whalers back in the 1950s. K Pod K pod is the smallest of the three pods in the Southern Resident killer whale community with only 17 members. "This was a very different-looking group of killer whales," says Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The photograph above was taken on July 7, 2010. The notion that there might be some unusual kind of killer whale emerged in 1955. "This study was really a decade-long look at what do killer whales die from, from California to Alaska all the way out to Hawaii," he sasy. NIELSEN: Williams says it's hard to overstate how much these findings upset people who all but worship killer whales. Sea otter numbers were stable from 1993 through 1997 in Clam Lagoon, whereas in Kuluk Bay they declined by 76%. I can't even ... it was thrilling for all of us." Lull for killer whales. 2). This is due to the fact that killer whales are used to eating animals two to five times the size of otters, so they need to eat two to five times as many otters as seals or sea lions. I'm Michele Norris. He also says the original idea that these orcas once ate the great whales can't be proven. First, Williams determines that the average orca needs to eat the equivalent of five to seven sea otters a day just to get by. Since 1990, otter populations off the Aleutian Islands have fallen by as much as 80 percent. But then they got a 12-hour quiet spell. It's gone. NIELSEN: In the current issue of the journal Ecology, Williams and her colleagues show just how big the killer-whale bite out of the otter population is. They can tell, even in the darkest parts of the sea, where items are by how quickly their noises bounce back. 2). The mouth comes up, takes the sea otter, grabs it and gulps it down. For the moment this debate is largely academic; nobody is seriously talking about killing orcas to protect otters, seals and sea lions. 1 Global PCB concentrations in killer whales. Different populations of killer whales make different vocalizations, and different pods within these populations may even have their own dialect. NOAA biologist Lisa Ballance, who's married to Pitman, was part of the team. Copyright © 2005 NPR. "The idea is that, if we can figure that out, we might be able to find some ways that we can further help recover the endangered population, like Southern residents." What kinds of other animals share the sea otters’ habitat? Scientists found extremely high PCB levels in the animals’ bodies. Although the population size and status of killer whales in the Aleutian Islands are unknown, these animals are commonly seen. NIELSEN: But it's not just whale-huggers who hate the orca hypothesis. Share this: Facebook; Twitter; Reddit; Google Classroom; Email; Print; By Science News for Students. Killer whales have a diverse diet, although individual populations often specialize in particular types of prey. Williams says the answer turned out to be a simple one. "And I looked down, and there they were, the New Zealand killer whales," he recalls. As a result, populations of sea otters in the Aleutian Islands have declined from an estimated 60,000 animals in the mid-1980s to under 10,000 by 2000. For Pitman, the hunt was on. Still others are investigating what to do about killer whales feeding on sea otters in Alaska. Serious scientists, like Doug DeMaster, don't think much of it either. NIELSEN: Environmental groups say the orca paper does a disservice to the cause of conservation by diverting attention from what they say is the real problem in the Bering Sea: overfishing. They use these sounds to help travel underwater. Either way, the mystery killer whales of the Southern Ocean have been found. Scientists recently found that as many as half of the world’s killer whale populations may not survive the next 100 years because of PCB pollution. Populations of otters along the Alaskan and Canadian coast, which had recovered to a few hundred thousand, were driven back down to just a few thousand. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information. NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. We had type D killer whales swimming around our boat. December 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm . Question Sheet: Sea Otters, Kelp, and Killer Whales. They are the largest dolphins. Later, they realized why the whales swam up to them. ", Pitman picks up the story: "The sun came up in the morning at 5:50. What might threaten sea otters? New Type Of Killer Whale Found Swimming In Southern Ocean The notion that there might be some new kind of killer whale emerged in 1955, when photos from New Zealand showed a … It's still waiting to be tested. Populations of mammal-eating transient orcas, gray whales and humpback whales are increasing. But sea otters living in the Bering Sea off Alaska probably think differently. "Visibly," she says, "this form is the most unusual and distinct form of killer whale on the planet.". And I said, 'That's it! Where do sea otters live? They live in pods. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. All rights reserved. One killer whale would need to eat 1,825 otters a year to live. A group of ecologists says it solved the mystery of Alaska's missing sea otters. And by the late 1990's, I'd see 'em three or four times a day. Other researchers are studying why California’s sea otters seem to have become more vulnerable to disease and parasites. The killer whale (also known as the orca) generally did not consume sea otters in the past, but now consumes thousands of otters. People raised on movies like "Free Willy" tend to think of killer whales as well-meaning, fence-jumping giants who want nothing more than to live in perfect harmony with all the other creatures in the ocean. A group of ecologists says it has solved the mystery of Alaska's missing sea otters. (killer whales spouting water) I would see a killer whale on average of probably once every three or four years in the '70s and '80s. Killer whale, (Orcinus orca), also called orca, largest member of the dolphin family (Delphinidae). The killer whale is easy to identify by its size and its striking coloration: jet black on top and pure white below with a white patch behind each eye, another extending up each flank, and a variable “saddle patch” just behind the dorsal fin. Ms. WILLIAMS: And you end up with a whopping 300,000 sea otters in a single year potentially eaten by these animals. The whales were smaller than other killer whales, and they had rounded heads and pointier fins. Killer whales in the north Pacific switched to eating Harbor seals, Northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, and finally Sea otters, thinning each species’ populations out one-by-one. I should point out that killer whales around the world are doing fine, but this population is listed as endangered on both sides of the border of the U.S. and Canada. Whales eat them a 65-pound sea otter Twitter ; Reddit ; Google Classroom ; Email ; ;. Pods in the oceanic dolphin family photograph above was taken on July 7, 2010 marine mammals such as and. 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