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Southern resident killer whales to get personalized health records

Mar 30. 16

By Matt Meuse, CBC News

B.C.'s most famous marine mammals could soon have a database dedicated to tracking their personal health.

Researchers around the Pacific Northwest collect swathes of data on the southern resident killer whales who call this part of the world home. Dr. Joe Gaydos, director of the SeaDoc Society in Eastsound, Wash., wants to consolidate that data into a single individualized database.

"You could imagine the confusion if you go to the hospital and have something going wrong and they say, well, we need to call your radiologist, but he's out of town, we'll get that tomorrow. We need to talk to your internist, but she's not here right now," Gaydos told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

A bigger ocean health picture

Gaydos said a unified record system would allow greater collaboration between researchers and give them a bigger picture of the southern resident orca population as a whole.

"This is one of the best studied wild populations in the world," Gaydos said. "But right now, all of these records are in different places."

As an example, Gaydos noted that recent birth trends show more male orcas being born than females. Researchers are interested in finding out why, especially if it's being caused by human activity.

A unified record system, Gaydos said, would allow researchers to compare their own birth records against long-term records collected by other researchers, like toxin levels, water temperature, ship noise and many others, potentially isolating the cause.

"If you have all of this, it's like one-stop shopping," he said.

Taking cues from gorilla researchers

The southern resident killer whales are an endangered population of about 80 orcas who can generally be found off the coast of Vancouver Island.

They've been spotted as far south as California and as far north as Haida Gwaii. The oldest — J2 of J pod, also known as "Granny" — is estimated to be about 103 years old, making her older than the Titanic.

Gaydos said researchers have had success with similar record systems in the past for studying both gorillas and northern right whales.

He said the Gorilla Doctors program tracks the health of more than 400 human-habituated mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, and researchers have used it to show growth in the habituated population versus the wild population.

The proposed database will involve collaboration from SeaDoc, the Vancouver Aquarium, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as well as research and government institutions in the United States. Gaydos said the program will be piloted this summer, with hopes for full implementation by next year.

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