MEPS 372:289-302 (2008)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps07709

Assessing age distributions of killer whale Orcinus orca populations from the composition of endogenous fatty acids in their outer blubber layers

David P. Herman1,*, Craig O. Matkin2, Gina M.Ylitalo1, John W. Durban3,5, M. Bradley Hanson1, Marilyn E. Dahlheim3, Janice M. Straley4, Paul R. Wade3, Karen L. Tilbury1, Richard H. Boyer1, Ronald W. Pearce1, Margaret M. Krahn1

1NOAA Fisheries, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, 2725 Montlake Boulevard East, Seattle, Washington 98112, USA
2North Gulf Oceanic Society, PO Box 15244, Homer, Alaska 99603, USA
3NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA
4University of Alaska Southeast, 1332 Seward Avenue, Sitka, Alaska 99835, USA
5Center for Whale Research, 355 Smugglers Cove Road, Friday Harbor, Washington 98250, USA

ABSTRACT: Knowledge of the age distributions of killer whale Orcinus orca populations is critical to assess their status and long-term viability. Except for accessible, well-studied populations for which historical sighting data have been collected, currently there is no reliable benign method to determine the specific age of live animals for remote populations. To fill this gap in our knowledge of age structure, we describe new methods by which age can be deduced from measurements of specific lipids, endogenous fatty acids (FAs) and FA ratios present in their outer blubber layers. Whereas correlation of wax and sterol esters with age was reasonable for female ‘resident’ killer whales, it was less well-defined for males and ‘transients.’ Individual short-, branched-, and odd-chain FAs correlated better with age for transients and residents of both sexes, but these single parameter relationships were population specific and seemingly varied with long-term diet. Alternatively, a simple, empirical multi-linear model derived from the combination of 2 specific FA ratios enabled the ages of individual eastern North Pacific killer whales to be predicted with good precision (σ = ±3.8 yr), appeared to be independent of individual diet and was applicable to both genders and ecotypes. The model was applied to several less well-studied killer whale populations to predict their age distributions from their blubber FA compositions, and these distributions were compared with a population of known age structure. Most interestingly, these results provide evidence for the first time that adult male transient killer whales appear to have lower life expectancies than do their resident counterparts in Alaska.


KEY WORDS: Killer whale · Orcinus orca · Ageing · Biopsy sampling · Fatty acids · Northeast Pacific


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Cite this article as: Herman DP, Matkin CO, Ylitalo GM, Durban JW and others (2008) Assessing age distributions of killer whale Orcinus orca populations from the composition of endogenous fatty acids in their outer blubber layers. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 372:289-302. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps07709

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