Scientists trying to determine what killed young orca

November 29, 2011 12:29:18 AM PST
Bay Area scientists are trying to figure out what killed a young orca. The 18-foot male juvenile killer whale washed-up just north of McClure's Beach -- a stretch of coastline that is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore and was spotted by a passerby on Thanksgiving Day.

Orcas typically travel far away from shore, so to have one turn up on the beach is rare.

"The only other orca I've ever worked on was a calf; you do see orca calves every once in a while so you know a young, very young animal, so to see a larger animal, he was 18 feet long, he was beautiful," California Academy of Sciences scientist Moe Flannery said.

Flannery is now trying to figure out what caused the orca's death. The killer whale, a juvenile, was healthy and had a good layer of blubber, but there were signs that it may have hit something.

The prevailing theory is that the injuries were caused by another orca, since killer whales are fast and agile enough to outmaneuver a passing boat.

"It had a little bit of hemorrhaging in the head so we suspect that it suffered from some blunt force trauma, what that was we don't know," Flannery said.

Flannery will soon be sending other researchers skin and blubber samples for genetic and toxicology analysis. She'll also be sending photos to orca experts in hopes they can identify the killer whale by its dorsal fin and patterns on its back.

"We may know more about his life history, what group he's part of, the resident group or transient group of orcas," Flannery said. "If he lives in a population of Washington and Oregon and was just moving through the area, maybe how old he is."

The California Academy of Sciences only has seven orca specimens in their collection, so researchers will certainly be archiving pieces of this killer whale to be available for future studies.


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