Southern resident killer whales

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The research vessel Noctiluca of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in close proximity to a killer whale

The southern resident killer whales (SRKW) represent the smallest of four resident communities within the Northwestern portion of North America Pacific Ocean. It is the only killer whale population listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It is currently protected under the Endangered Species Act as of 2005.[1] They are commonly referred to as the "orcas of the Salish Sea",[2] "fish-eating orcas", or the "SRKW" population. Unlike other resident communities, the SRKW is only one clan (J) that consists of 3 pods (J, K, L) with several matrilines within each pod.[3] There are approximately 80 individuals that make up this small population. The world's oldest known killer whale, Granny or J2, had belonged to and led the J pod of the SRKW population. As of October 2016, however, she is presumed deceased. [4] J2 was estimated to have been born around 1911, which means this Orca would have been 105 years old at the time of her death, and the oldest known Orca to date.[5]

Social structure[edit]

Photo identification over the last 38 years has allowed researchers to track the southern resident population quite accurately, such as the Orca ID site[6] offered through the Center for Whale Research. Their population is built upon a matrilineal system where these strong hierarchical groups of individuals are connected by maternal descent. Each matriline consists of a female, her sons and daughters and the offspring of her daughters; averaging anywhere from one to seventeen individuals and one to five generations within each of these matrilines.[3] Pods are groups of matrilines that share a maternal ancestor, in which the southern residents consist of three pods. The number of individuals changes due to birth and deaths.

The Orca Network provides a list (last updated September 6, 2014). The following is the basic social structure:[7]

Southern Resident
J Pod (27 members)
K Pod (19 members)
L Pod (35 members)
J2(believed deceased as of October 2016), J4, J5, J7, J10, J11, J32 (found dead on a beach on Vancouver Island on December 4, 2014.)
K4, K7, K8, K11, K18
L2, L4, L9, L12, L21, L25, L26, L28, L35, L37

In 2014, L120 was born into L pod but didn't survive more than a month. In late 2014, J50 was born into the J pod. After a lot of speculation, J16 was confirmed to be J50's mother, making the 42-year-old the oldest ever recorded orca mother. The gender of the calf is confirmed to be female.[8]

In February 2015, two new calves were spotted, a male calf in J pod, designated J51, and one in L pod, designated L121. J51's mother is ten-year-old J41 Eclipse and L121's mother is year old L94 Calypso. A fourth calf, designated J52 was born in March 2015 to J36 Alki, who is J16's daughter. The genders of L121 and J52 are unknown.


Similar dialects amongst pods create the social grouping called "clans". It is believed that the more similar their dialect is within the pods, the more closely related they are. The southern dialect is very different from that of other communities. For instance, northern residents use whistles as their main type of close-range communication and the southern residents use whistles for regular social interactions and long-range communications. Southern residents appear to be much more vocal but it could be due to their vocal usage during travel and the fact that they seem to travel more than the northern residents.[3]


The southern residents have reportedly been seen off the coast of Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Recently, they have been spotted as far south as the coast of central California and as far north as the coast of Haida Gwaii. During the spring, summer, and fall, the southern residents tend to travel around the inland waterways of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and southern Georgia Strait.[9] Little is known about their range and movements during the winter months.

Distinguishing features[edit]

  • Dorsal fin: rounded at the tip (leading edge) and positioned over the rear insertion of the fin towards the back.
  • Saddle patch: typically seen as an "open" saddle patch; five different pigmentation patterns have been reported with similarities noted among clans within a community.[10]


Southern residents are fish-eating orcas that appear to prefer the Chinook salmon to other fish species. From visual sources, necropsy, and feces collection, the following food preferences have been reported:[3]

They can be known to play with porpoise.


The major threats to this very small community have been listed as:[3]

  • Decreased prey availability
  • Pollution and contaminants
  • Effects from vessels traffic and vessel sound

Decline in prey[edit]

The depletion of large quantities of fish in the marine environments, while personal fishing in the salmon’s upstream spawning grounds have further depleted stock replenishment.[11] Aquaculture has had a negative effect on world fish supplies,[12] including through the spread of pathogens to the wild fish stock. A study also found that Chinook salmon found in South Puget Sound have less fat than those farther north, causing an increased need for consumption.[13]

Chemical contamination[edit]

Northwest killer whales are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, due to the high levels of toxic anthropogenic chemicals that accumulate in their tissues.[14] Implicated in the decline of Orca populations in the Pacific Northwest, these widespread contaminants pose a large problem for conservation efforts. While many chemicals can be found in the tissues of Orca, the most common are DDT, an insecticide, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.[15] Each of these have detrimental physiological effects on orca,[16] and can be found in such high concentrations in dead individuals that those individuals must be disposed of in hazardous waste site.[17]

Correlative evidence shows orca may be vulnerable to effects of PCBs on many levels. Research has identified PCBs as being linked to restricting development of the reproductive system in orcas and dolphins.[18] High contamination levels leads to low pregnancy rates and high mortality in dolphins. Further effects include endocrine and immune system disruption, both systems being critical to mammalian health and survival.[16] A study examining 35 Northwest orcas found key genetic alterations that caused changes to normal physiological functions.[19] These genetic level interferences, combined with the varied effects of PCBs at other physiological levels, suggest these contaminants may be partially responsible for declines in Orca populations.

Marine noise[edit]

Noise and crowding from tour boats and larger vessels interrupt foraging behavior, or scare away prey. The noise can mask echolocation causing difficulty with catching prey.[20] Also, the sonar used by some ships and submarines is enough to cause hemorrhaging, and subsequently, death in some individuals[21]

Conservation Efforts[edit]

Current conservation efforts are listed as:[22]

  • Support salmon restoration efforts
  • Clean up existing contaminated sites
  • Continue evaluating and improving guidelines for vessel activity
  • Prevent oil spills
  • Continue Agency coordination
  • Enhance public awareness
  • Improve responses to live and dead killer whales
  • Coordinate monitoring, research, enforcement
  • Conduct research
  • Cooperation and coordination

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Endangered Species Act - Protecting Marine Resources" (PDF). U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  2. ^ "Orcas of the Salish Sea". Orca Network. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c d e National Marine Fisheries Service (2008). "Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca)" (PDF). National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Region, Seattle, Washington. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  4. ^ Azpiri, Jon (2 January 2017). "105-year-old orca known as 'Granny' has died, researchers say". Global News. Corus News. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  5. ^ Balcomb, Kenneth C. (31 December 2016). "J2: In Memoriam". Center for Whale Research. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  6. ^ "How Southern Resident Killer Whales are Identified". Center for Whale Research. Archived from the original on 28 November 2009. 
  7. ^ "Southern Resident Orca Community Demographics, Composition of Pods, Births and Deaths since 1998". San Juan Island: Center for Whale Research. 23 July 2013. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  8. ^ Gamby, Sonja (7 January 2015). "Endangered species has hope with the birth of a baby killer whale". Modus Vivendi. Archived from the original on 16 January 2015. 
  9. ^ "Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)". NOAA Fisheries: Office of Protected Resources. 25 June 2014. Archived from the original on 16 July 2014. 
  10. ^ Baird, Robin William; Stacey, Pam Joyce (3 March 1988). "Variation in saddle patch pigmentation in populations of killer whales (Orcinus orca) from British Columbia, Alaska, and Washington State" (PDF). Can. J. Zool. 66: 2582–2585. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  11. ^ Noakes, Donald J, Richard J Beamish, and Michael J Kent. "On the decline of Pacific salmon and speculative links to salmon farming in British Columbia." Aquaculture. 183.3-4 (363): 386.
  12. ^ "Effect of aquaculture on world fish supplies". Nature. 405: 1017–1024. 27 June 2000. (subscription required)
  13. ^ Cullon, D.L., et al. 2009. Persistent organic pollutants in Chinook salmon (oncorynchus tshawytscha): implications for resident killer whales of British Columbia and adjacent waters. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 28:148-161.
  14. ^ O'Neill, S, and J West. "Marine Distribution, Life History Traits, and the Accumulation of Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Chinook Salmon from Puget Sound,Washington." Transactions of the American Fisheries Societies. 138.3 (2009): 616-32.
  15. ^ "Causes of Decline among Southern Resident Killer Whales". Center for Conservation Biology. University of Washington. Archived from the original on 9 May 2014. 
  16. ^ a b Ross, P.S, G.M Ellis, et al. "High PCB Concentrations in Free- Ranging Pacific Killer Whales, Orcinus orca: Effects of Age, Sex and Dietary Preference." Marine Pollution Bulletin. 40.6 (2000): 504–515
  17. ^ Wotkyns, Sue; Khatibi, Mehrdad (10 May 2012). "Fisheries Impact". Tribes and Climate Change. Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals & Northern Arizona University. Archived from the original on 29 June 2015. 
  18. ^ "The Dolphin Defender: The effects of PCBs". Nature. PBS. 12 June 2008. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  19. ^ Buckman, AH, N Veldhoen, et al. "PCB-Associated Changes in mRNA Expression in Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) from the NE Pacific Ocean."ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY. 40.23 (2011): 10194-10202
  20. ^ "Boat Disturbance". Wild Whales. Vancouver Aquarium. Archived from the original on 17 June 2016. 
  21. ^ Slaughter, Graham (9 December 2011). "Whales, interrupted: How noise pollution from boats and sonar from ships hurt orcas". Canadian Geographic. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  22. ^ "Killer whale (Orcinus orca)". NOAA Fisheries. Retrieved 4 February 2016. 

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