By becoming a member of the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program you will be directly supporting research on wild killer whales. Continuing research will lead to a better understanding of the whales, their place in the ocean ecosystem, and the conservation measures necessary to protect them.

 

The Blackfish Sounder 

Annual newsletter of the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program

The Blackfish Sounder is the annual Adopters-Only newsletter of the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program that is sent to anyone who joins the program by adopting a whale. Through a mix of news and feature stories, The Blackfish Sounder keeps adopters up-to-date on what we currently know about killer whales - in B.C. and around the world - and what we hope to learn in the future. This year marks the 26th and final edition of the newsletter, replaced instead with Facebook posts, blogs, and online updates. See the article below for a sampling from the 2018 issue.

 

The Poo Crew 

There’s a new boat on the water this year, and it’s picking up what the whales are leaving behind…quite literally. The Coastal Ocean Research Institute's Marine Mammal Research Program has a new research team, working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), to assess the health of southern and northern resident killer whales as indicated by the hormones present in their feces (scat). Yes, that’s correct – the team is busy collecting whale poo!

How does one find whale poo? It’s easier if you are looking down from above. This summer the scat team was out on the water working alongside the Marine Mammal Research Program’s photogrammetry team. Using a small drone to take aerial images of the whales, the photogrammetry team would communicate to the scat team when they observed a whale defecating from above. The scat team then drove over to collect any pieces floating on the surface of the water. Killer whale scat can range in colour and texture, and can be difficult to tell apart from some of the algaes we have in our ocean. Once collected, the team notes the colour, texture and consistency of the sample, takes a good whiff to identify the odour, and immediately processes and freezes the sample on board the vessel. Back at the lab, the fecal samples will be analyzed for concentrations of steroid and thyroid hormone metabolites as indicators of physiological stress; as well as genotyped to identify individual animals whenever possible.

How do hormone concentrations indicate stress? The adrenal cortex and the thyroid work together to regulate metabolism in mammals, allocating energy use for growth and reproduction by producing and releasing hormones. Hormones produced in the adrenal cortex, such as glucocorticoids (GCs, a class of steroid hormones), and hormones produced in the thyroid respond to stressful events in different ways. GCs increase rapidly in response to nutritional and disturbance stress, while thyroid hormones decline with prolonged food shortages. Examining relative concentrations of the two can help indicate what factors may be contributing to stress in both resident populations.

Previous studies investigating stress hormone levels in the feces of the southern residents have shown elevated concentrations of stress hormones indicative of nutritional stress, but similar studies have not yet been conducted with the northern resident population. By conducting fecal hormone analyses on both populations simultaneously and investigating any relationships, there is potential to link physiological stress hormone levels to population health. The project is funded for three years through DFO's Oceans Protection Plan, to add to the understanding of the threats affecting the health and status of the endangered southern resident population.