Endangered Northwest orcas: how can we save orcas from extinction?

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Scientists will sequence the genomes of endangered Northwest orcas to research the potential methods to save orcas from extinction.

The research effort to see if the genetics of endangered Northwest orcas can indicate ways to save orcas from extinction will be carried out by various collaborating scientists. The scientists are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy and BGI, the global genomics company.

Endangered Northwest Orcas

Orcas are toothed whales, commonly referred to as killer whales. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) describes them as: “The wolf of the sea[…]A toothed whale that is an efficient predator. Their only enemy is mankind.”

It is widely known that orcas are intelligent, social creatures that have excellent memories and live in life-long communities with other killer whales.

Although the species is not defined as endangered, in some areas including the Pacific Northwest, the local orcas are considered as endangered due to various human factors.

The factors which lead to the endangerment of orcas include:

  • Pollution;
  • Depletion of prey;
  • Conflicts with fishing and vessels;
  • Habitat loss; and
  • Whaling

The orca’s preferred prey is the chinook salmon, which is becoming increasingly scarce.

Can scientists save orcas from extinction?

The scientists will sequence the genome (the entire genetic code) of the endangered Northwest orcas using skin and other samples of over a hundred live and dead orcas from the past two decades.

The scientists are sequencing the genomes of the endangered Northwest orcas because it could help to explain whether internal factors are preventing the orcas from rebounding. For example, there could be internal factors such as inbreeding or genetic variation in immune systems in play.

The initial results are expected to be available next year. The results will provide some more information on the genetic factors causing the endangerment of Northwest orcas and give an indication as to whether there are ways to save orcas from extinction.

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