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Killer whale -- Behavior, Killer whale -- Mortality, Marine mammals -- Stranding, Killer whale -- Biology, Whales -- Physiology


Understanding health and mortality in killer whales (Orcinus orca) is crucial for management and conservation actions. We reviewed pathology reports from 53 animals that stranded in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Hawaii between 2004 and 2013 and used data from 35 animals that stranded from 2001 to 2017 to assess association with morphometrics, blubber thickness, body condition and cause of death. Of the 53 cases, cause of death was determined for 22 (42%) and nine additional animals demonstrated findings of significant importance for population health. Causes of calf mortalities included infectious disease, nutritional, and congenital malformations. Mortalities in sub-adults were due to trauma, malnutrition, and infectious disease and in adults due to bacterial infections, emaciation and blunt force trauma. Death related to human interaction was found in every age class. Important incidental findings included concurrent sarcocystosis and toxoplasmosis, uterine leiomyoma, vertebral periosteal proliferations, cookie cutter shark (Isistius sp.) bite wounds, excessive tooth wear and an ingested fish hook. Blubber thickness increased significantly with body length (all p < 0.001). In contrast, there was no relationship between body length and an index of body condition (BCI). BCI was higher in animals that died from trauma. This study establishes a baseline for understanding health, nutritional status and causes of mortality in stranded killer whales. Given the evidence of direct human interactions on all age classes, in order to be most successful recovery efforts should address the threat of human interactions, especially for small endangered groups of killer whales that occur in close proximity to large human populations, interact with recreational and commercial fishers and transit established shipping lanes.


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This is an open access article, free of all copyright, and may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, built upon, or otherwise used by anyone for any lawful purpose. The work is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication.



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