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Latest updates on Southern Resident Killer Whales J50 and J35

by NOAA Fisheries 23 Aug 06:02 PDT
Southern Resident Killer Whales © NOAA Fisheries

Biologists are mobilized and responding to an emaciated and ailing three year-old killer whale (born December 2014), J50 also known as Scarlet, of the critically endangered Southern Resident population.

J50 appears lethargic at times with periods of activity, including feeding. Scientists observing her agree that she is in poor condition and may not survive. Responders from NOAA Fisheries and partner organizations are exploring options ranging from no intervention to providing medical treatment, potentially delivered in a live Chinook salmon, which has never before been attempted in the wild. Potential treatment may include medication and nutrition.

J35, an adult female also known as Tahlequah, who carried her dead calf for over two weeks, is also being monitored.

J50 Updates

August 20: Response teams spent about three hours on Saturday (8/18) monitoring J50/Scarlet as J Pod returned to the Salish Sea on the way towards San Juan Island. Biologists aboard a SeaDoc Society vessel reported J50/Scarlet actively socializing with the rest of the pod, a hint that her condition may be improving slightly. She fell behind the pod as the whales swam east, but a University of Washington (UW) team saw her rejoin her mother (J16/Slick) and sister (J42/Echo) to forage near Hannah Heights on the west side of San Juan Island.

The UW team also collected two fecal samples from the group. On Sunday (8/19) J Pod was seen heading west, back toward open ocean. The plan going forward is to administer another dose of antibiotic through a dart and, if possible, a second dart with dewormer to reduce parasitic worms, known to be harmful in emaciated marine mammals like J50/Scarlet, and that were found in the recent fecal samples from a group of three whales including J50. The veterinary team believes another dose of antibiotic remains the priority to treat potential infection since the first dart on 8/9 delivered only half a dose. Darting a swimming killer whale that has thick skin, particularly on fins and flukes, from a rocking boat is challenging.

To ensure that J50/Scarlet receives the medication, veterinarians may switch to a collared needle with a ridge that holds it in place long enough to deliver the full dose. This type of dart is commonly used to treat wildlife, such as elephants, and will fall out in time. See new photos from Saturday (8/18) here

August 17: Test results from the health samples collected from J50/Scarlet are starting to come in from several top laboratories around the country. A fecal sample collected last weekend from a group of three J Pod whales (J16/Slick, J42/Echo, and J50/Scarlet), showed high levels of Contracaecum, a nematode parasite that is commonly found in killer whales and other marine mammals.

The worm is not usually a problem in healthy animals. However, in animals that are emaciated or are otherwise compromised, the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or it can bore into internal organs. While we cannot be sure the sample came from J50/Scarlet, the veterinary team has updated her treatment priorities to include antibiotics and a dewormer. Both have proven successful and safe in other cetaceans. The treatment should help J50/Scarlet by reducing bacterial and parasitic burdens on her system so she can start regaining the weight she has lost. The whales remain in open waters off the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of the response teams.

Read more here

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