Killer Whales, Humans Have Much in Common

May 30, 2016

Humans and killer whales have so much in common that the latter are now serving as a model for our species by showing how ecology, culture and evolution reveal themselves in genomes.

Both killer whales, also called orcas, and humans are two of the world’s most cosmopolitan animals, given that both include subgroups that migrated and quickly diversified from an ancestral population likely due to climate change. The new study, published in Nature Communications, finds that such life histories can leave their mark in genes.

Our species is not closely related to orcas — toothed whales that are the largest species in the dolphin family — making the similarities all the more surprising.

“Both humans and killer whales have big brains and are able to master complex behaviors, and perhaps, most importantly, innovate new behaviors that help them adapt to different environments and to hunt different prey often using quite specialized hunting behavior,” lead author Andrew Foote told Discovery News.

Orcas exist within at least five different cultures, also called ecotypes. The various groups live in different areas, look a bit different and have different foraging strategies. One group, for example, mostly hunts seals, while others mostly subsist on penguins or fish. Social learning within the cohesive groups appears to facilitate the specializations.

Foote, an evolutionary ecologist who is a visiting scholar at the University of Bern, and his team studied and compared the genomes of these different orca cultures, and found that their predecessors came from an ancestral population that began to migrate starting at about 250,000 years ago.

The great journeys are told in the DNA, as the migrant relatives exhibit less genetic diversity than the ancestral population. Rare genetic mutations in the migrants also help to trace travel paths, since these mutations were passed on to successive generations. The same phenomena are seen in our species.

“In humans, we see this signal of changes in the frequency of mutations, and loss of genetic diversity associated with the migration out of Africa,” Foote said. “We also see this in our genomic data for each killer whale ecotype.”

The researchers point out that humans and orcas have each colonized a portion of the globe in a relatively short period of time, from an evolutionary standpoint. Both sets of travelers were exposed to differences in climate and available food sources.

“It is the extent of this geographic scale and consequently the range of climatic, habitat and dietary variables that make the comparison between killer whales and humans an attractive one, and in which humans differ from other great apes (such as chimps and gorillas),” Foote said.

For both orcas and humans, there is a “chicken and egg” question: Which came first, cultural change or genetic change?

The scientists suspect that behavioral flexibility in both animal groups leads to cultures inherited through social learning over many generations. As time goes on, genetic changes that may contribute to the adaptations can also rise in frequency and gradually become widespread throughout the population as it expands. Cultural and genetic change therefore go hand in hand, but the behavioral flexibility that leads to the former probably happens first.

Orca experts contacted by Discovery News said that the new paper represents a milestone in marine mammal research.

Hal Whitehead, a biologist at Dalhousie University, said, “I had hoped for some time that someone would begin to look at gene-culture coevolution in killer in killer whales using genomics, but the extent of this research goes beyond well my hope. The results are fascinating. We now see how in killer whales, as in humans, culture is not only an important factor in the lives of the whales, but also drives genetic evolution.”

Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich’s Anthropological Institute & Museum said, “So far, we have not been able to investigate the link between adaptive evolution and the demographic history of a marine mammal species in such great detail. The genomics analyses are state of the art and allowed novel insights into the processes shaping the genome of a marine mammal.”

Krützen added that “there is no reason to assume gene-culture co-evolution is not also happening in other highly cultural species, such as for instance great apes and some marine mammals.” Future studies might therefore apply the same approach to other intelligent, social animals, such as bottlenose dolphins,  which also exhibit gene-culture coevolution.


Orcas threatened by oil transfer plans, says MSP Finnie

May 30, 2016

orcas big-K2000

Shetland’s migratory killer whales have made their annual trip into the Moray Firth, where they could be put at risk if controversial plans to allow ship-to-ship oil transfers are given the go-ahead.

That is the view of Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie, who has been campaigning to stop the proposal and has pressed the Scottish government for details of the dangers posed by the oil transfers.

The pod of six orcas, including a new-born calf, is known as the Northern Isles community. The family migrates between Iceland and the Moray Firth each year, and would be vulnerable to any oil spill in the firth resulting from ship-to-ship transfer operations.

Mr Finnie urged the new minister for environment, climate change and land reform, Roseanna Cunningham, to make the Scottish government’s position clear.

Cromarty Firth Port Authority has applied for a licence for the risky ship-to-ship procedure, in which oil is transferred between vessels in the open sea rather than secured in a harbour. The application is presently being considered by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Mr Finnie said the Scottish Greens had a strong track record in protecting coastal communities from ship-to-ship plans.

A three-year campaign by Green MSPs to halt similar plans in the Firth of Forth ended in victory when Forth Ports PLC dropped their proposal in 2008.

Mr Finnie launched the Save Our Dolphins campaign in response to the Moray Firth plan in January this year, his petition receiving over 3,700 signatures.

He said: “The orcas are a highlight of Shetland’s spectacular marine life. They help bring visitors to the islands, and joy to the islanders.

“It’s terrible to think of these extraordinary animals being put in danger for the sake of unnecessary ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Moray Firth.

“Oil transfers are already carried out safely in the relative shelter of Nigg harbour; there’s no need to take chances with risky ship-to-ship operations in the open sea.

“I’m trying to find out whether the Scottish government understands the threat to Shetland’s orcas, and to the wider marine environment.

“If it does, I hope new environment minister Roseanna Cunningham will break the silence that her predecessor inexplicably maintained on the issue, and join the opposition to the proposal.

“Green MSPs have beaten ship-to-ship plans once before, in the Firth of Forth. With your help we can do it again: please sign the petition at”


Killer whale spectacle thrills tourists off coast in Hokkaido

May 30, 2016

RAUSU, Hokkaido–Pods of killer whales are gathering in the Nemuro strait, off the coast of this fishing town on the east coast of Japan’s northernmost island.

Passengers on a tourist cruise boat were thrilled by a close encounter with the marine mammal when one dived beneath the boat and surfaced beside the stem.

Many killer whales were seen swimming near the coast on May 28, and they usually remain in the area until July, according to a tour organizer.

The Nemuro strait separates the main island of Hokkaido from Kunashiri island in the east. Rausu stretches on one side of the mountainous Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage site along the strait.

Click on the source link for video


Orca swims into the Siuslaw River

May 29, 2016

FLORENCE, Ore. – An Orca swam into the Siuslaw River in Florence Saturday afternoon.

Florence resident Deborah Heldt Cordone pulled out her camera and recorded the whale jumping in the water from her home.

She later moved closer to get a better look.

Heldt Cordone says the whale swam upstream about to Rhododendron Drive. She says there were two or three fishing boats in the river at the time. Most of them stayed out of the way, but one boat slowly followed the whale as it made its way back to the ocean.

Heldt Cordone says it’s unusual to see whales in the ocean, but a similar incident happened about a year ago when three whales swam all the way to the bridge that crosses the river.


Morgan, witness report, again

VIDEO: Morgan Shows What’s Wrong With CaptivityM

May 26, 2016

A recent video from the anonymous “Morgan Monitors” at Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain, shows Morgan fully out of the water, and on the concrete slide-out. Morgan Monitors reports that after the final show of the day had ended, Morgan suddenly slid onto the slide-out, remaining there for a witnessed 10 minutes – and maybe longer.

While we cannot explain the reason for her behavior, the juxtaposition of a previously-wild orca against the stark backdrop of the park’s performance area is unsettling, to say the least.

Some people took selfies with Morgan in the background. Sadly, Morgan was still out of the water by the time the videographers had to leave.






Rare video of orcas in the Gulf of Mexico

May 26, 2016

SOUTH PASS, LA. — A group of friends out fishing, just 50 miles South of South Pass, Saturday, saw something extremely rare.

Mark Hawley, Nick Trist, IV, Jared Averill, Matt Teen, Ashley Joplin, and Jessica Piglia were tuna fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, when they caught an unusual sight on camera.

A pod of orcas, better known as killer whales, were swimming not far from their boat.

Orcas live in cold deep waters and rarely come that close to land.

Dr. Moby Solangi at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, says this could be a first warning sign that there is an environmental problem. The scientists at the IMMS got the GPS  location from the group and plan to investigate the sighting.

Watch raw video from the fishing trip.


Killer whales from Iceland spotted in Moray Firth, Scottland

May 25, 2016

Killer whales off the coast of Moray. Pictures: Pippa Low, North 58 Sea Adventures

A POD of six killer whales from Iceland has been spotted in the Moray Firth.

The animals were photographed by a local boat trip crew near Covesea on Monday, marking the most southerly point off Scotland’s east coast where Icelandic orcas have ever been seen.

At least three of the animals, which are members of the dolphin family rather than whales, were individuals known to conservationists.
The unexpected appearance occurred during the annual Orca Watch, organised by the research charity Sea Watch Foundation (SWF).

The operation is carefully planned to coincide with the arrival of killer whales in the Pentland Firth and allows the team to collect data about orcas and other cetaceans that visit these northerly waters.

However, the Icelandic pod surfaced more than 60 miles to the south of the strait that divides Orkney from mainland Scotland, witnessed by SWF’s Alan Airey.

The surprise occurrence sparked a huge response on social media, with representatives of the Icelandic Orca Project confirming that three of the animals had been officially catalogued there.

Killer whales can be seen in several locations around Scotland. Those seen off northern and eastern coasts are migratory, following mackerel and herring shoals.

On the other side of the country is a small group of nine animals that are resident all year round. Known as the West Coast Community, they do not interact with the migratory pods and have never produced any offspring.

“Although this sighting is now the furthest south that individuals from the Icelandic population have been confirmed, other killer whale sightings have occurred in the Moray Firth and further south on many occasions,” said SWF sighting officer Kathy James.

SWF founder and director Dr Peter Evans added: “Members of a pod that has numbered up to 14 can be seen annually around the Hebrides of west Scotland, mainly in summer.

“The most famous of these is a mature male nicknamed John Coe that we have observed since at least 1980. It has a distinct nick towards the base of the dorsal fin, making it instantly recognisable, and a chunk out of its tail – possibly a shark bite. Sightings of John Coe have ranged from the Hebrides over to East Scotland, south to the northwest coast of Ireland and well into the Irish Sea off west Wales.”


This is the moment a lifeboat team from the North-east came face-to-face with killer whales.

The Peterhead Lifeboat team were returning from Inverness when the four crew members on board came across the whales at Kinnaird Head at Fraserburgh.

Wild killer whales are not considered to be a threat to humans, but there have been cases of them killing or injuring their handlers at marine theme parks.

The whales, thought to be Icelandic, are most commonly found in western North America, Patagonia, Norway, and New Zealand.

Peterhead lifeboat mechanic Alistair Wilson, who was on board, said: “At one point they were right beside the nose of the boat.

“This is the first time I have spotted them in this area.

“It was a very pleasant moment and we took time to take a couple of photos and to watch them at work.”

He added: “These small sightings are very pleasant and it’s very encouraging they want to be in the North-east.”


USDA Gets Sued in Latest Effort to Free Lolita the Lonely Orca

May 24, 2016

Animal advocacy organizations are back in court in the latest effort to free Lolita, the lone orca at the Miami Seaquarium.

Lolita was once a wild and free member of a family of orcas, the southern resident killer whales, who live in the Pacific Northwest, but her fate was forever changed when she was taken from them during the notoriously brutal roundups that took place in Penn Cove in 1970.

After she was torn from her family, she was taken to the Miami Seaquarium where she has spent more than 45 years in the smallest and oldest tank in North America. She has been alone since 1980, when her companion Hugo died from an aneurysm after ramming his head into the tank wall, in what many believe was a suicide.

Today, she is the last surviving southern resident in captivity.

Her advocates have been working hard to get her out of there for years and there has been some good news along the way, such as her being included in endangered species listing granted to her family in the wild in 2005, but she’s still languishing in Miami.

In the latest effort to free her, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Orca Network and PETA have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is challenging the agency’s decision to grant the Miami Seaquarium’s new owner a license to keep her.

The Miami Seaquarium was bought by Palace Entertainment in 2014, and as the ALDF explains, under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) licenses can’t just be transferred to new owners. Instead, new owners have to show that they’re complying with current regulations, and Palace Entertainment clearly has not.

Not only is Lolita being kept in a tank that violates the USDA’s own standards for minimum size, but she’s being kept in solitary confinement with no escape from bad weather or Florida’s scorching sun, which former caretakers have said caused burns that have led to her skin cracking and bleeding.

“Miami Seaquarium’s new owner simply does not qualify for a permit for this facility, when the orca confined there is suffering in an illegally small concrete pit,” said PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman. “We are asking the court to strip this deplorable facility of its wrongfully obtained license and put Lolita on the path to freedom after more than 45 years of captivity and exploitation.”

The ultimate goal is to return her to her home waters off the coast of Washington state, where she may be reunited with her family. Lolita is a member of the L pod and her mother, L25 (Ocean Sun), is still believed to be alive and with the pod, along with a few others who were present the day Lolita was taken.

While some who want to see her stay where she is have been trying to raise fears that moving her will do more harm than good, there is an extensive retirement plan for her in place and ready to go that involves moving her to a sea pen, where she’ll be able to experience the ocean again.

It’s hoped that she will eventually be able to return to the wild and reintegrate with her family, however, if she is unwilling, or unable, her advocates have vowed to provide care for her for the remainder of her life. In either case, bringing her home is far better than the future she faces now in captivity.

With promising changes like SeaWorld ending its breeding program and sea pens becoming a very realistic option for giving retired orcas better lives, we can hope Lolita’s advocates will be successful in getting her back home where she belongs.

While this case plays out, there’s yet more hope that another pending lawsuit arguing her living conditions constitute prohibited “take” under the Endangered Species Act, which includes harming and harassing imperiled species, will help get her there.

For more info on how to help, check out the Orca Network, ALDF and PETA.


SeaWorld criticizes Express-News investigation as ‘biased’

May 23, 2016

An Express-News investigation of infection deaths at SeaWorld parks was “unfairly critical” and presented an “incomplete set of facts” in a “biased way,” the company said on its blog after the article was published Sunday.

The investigation, based on federal data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that infections have caused the deaths of almost 150 sea lions, beluga whales, orcas and other dolphins at SeaWorld parks in the last 30 years. They have been especially deadly for killer whales, contributing to 60 percent of deaths for the species.

Many biologists and veterinarians think captivity impairs the immune systems of marine mammals by making them bored and stressed out, while SeaWorld and its defenders disagree. The company’s critics say stress is the reason many orcas at SeaWorld parks fracture their teeth on concrete and metal in their tanks, opening a pathway for bacteria.

SeaWorld’s blog post includes a quote from Kevin Willis, vice president for biological programs at the Minnesota Zoo, saying animals in his facilities are “not chronically stressed.” The Express-News investigation devoted several paragraphs to SeaWorld’s response to accusations that its marine mammals have high levels of stress.

“Suggesting that they are, because they have less space than their wild counterparts, doesn’t take into account everything faced by their wild counterparts, including hunger, pollution or being preyed on by other animals,” Willis says in the blog post.

The blog post mentions a 1996 study in Marine Mammal Science that was described in the Express-News article. The study shows that semi-domesticated bottlenose dolphins held in a sea pen had lower levels of stress hormones than wild dolphins that had been captured with nets shortly before having their blood tested.

The Express-News investigation came after the deaths of five dolphins, whales and sea lions from infections at the local park since May 2014. Another three marine mammals died from inflammatory diseases often caused by infections.

Along with the federal data, the article was based on interviews with four former SeaWorld trainers; seven experts, including three suggested by SeaWorld; and employees of the two federal agencies that regulate SeaWorld’s animal care, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. Through another FOIA request, the Express-News obtained inspection documents for SeaWorld’s three U.S. parks from APHIS.

SeaWorld’s blog post notes that the company hosted an Express-News reporter on a visit that included a tour of its animal care facilities. The Express-News also interviewed SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby, Vice President of Veterinary Services Chris Dold and employees of the local park.

In SeaWorld’s blog post, Willis surmises that a high infection rate among captive marine mammals could be caused by too few bacteria in their pools due to federal regulations for water quality. The small amount of bacteria could cause a lack of stimulation of the animals’ immune systems when they are young, he says.

“This is just one hypothesis that some scientists have been looking into, and no scientist would leap to stress as the reason if in fact infection rates were found to be higher in the animals in our care,” Willis says in the post.


What’s Killing the Orcas at SeaWorld?

Nyar, a killer whale born in 1993 at SeaWorld Orlando, was rejected and bullied so badly by her mother that she had to be separated in her own pool — and her condition went downhill from there.

The “super-friendly” young orca became weaker while taking medication several times a day for a fungal infection, said John Jett, who worked with her while he was a trainer at the park. She eventually had to be force-fed with a bottle and a stomach tube when she became too feeble to lift her head on the side of the tank for meals, he said. Finally, Nyar died at age two from the infection in her brain.

“It was a really pitiful case,” said Jett, who left his job as a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando shortly after Nyar died in April 1996. “When she died, I had had enough.”

Nyar’s illness is common at SeaWorld’s parks in San Antonio, Orlando and San Diego, where almost 150 sea lions, beluga whales, orcas and other dolphins have died from infections since 1986, out of a total of 816 listed under the parks’ care, according to information reported by SeaWorld to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and analyzed by the San Antonio Express-News.

In San Antonio, five dolphins, whales and sea lions have died from infections since May 2014 and another three from inflammatory diseases, including Stella the beluga whale before Thanksgiving from inflammation of the brain and Unna the killer whale around Christmas from a bacterial infection. Dart, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, died in February from a fungal infection in her brain.

“Infectious disease is the number one cause of death in animals both in the wild as well as animals that live in managed care,” said Chris Dold, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services. “The number of animals that come in and die of infectious disease in our rescue and rehabilitation programs greatly outnumbers the number of animals that die within our parks.”

Infections have caused more than 35 percent of marine mammal deaths at the parks, while another 11 percent were due to disorders often caused by infections, such as inflammation of the brain and intestines, records show.

They have been especially deadly for orcas and other dolphins, contributing to 60 percent of the deaths of orcas at the three parks and 55 percent for bottlenose and Pacific white-sided dolphins, according to the data, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The rates are lower for harbor seals, with 37 percent; beluga whales, with 30 percent; and California sea lions, with 25 percent, the data show.

The full article can be found at