ESR prepress abstract  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00883

Using aerial photogrammetry to detect changes in body condition of endangered southern resident killer whales

Holly Fearnbach*, John W. Durban, David K. Ellifrit, Kenneth C. Balcomb

*Email: hfearnbach@sealifer3.org

ABSTRACT: The endangered population of southern resident killer whales Orcinus orca is hypothesized to be food limited, but uncertainty remains over if and when the availability of their primary prey, Chinook salmon Oncorynchus tshawytscha, is low enough to cause nutritional stress. To measure changes in body condition, we collected 1635 measurable images from a helicopter hovering 230–460 m above whales, and linked these to individuals with distinctive natural markings. Head width (HW), measured at 15% of the distance between the blowhole and the dorsal fin (BHDF), was measured from images of 59 individuals in 2008 (from a population of 84) and 66/81 individuals in 2013, enabling assessment of between-year changes for 44 individuals (26 females, 18 males). Of these, 11 had significant declines in HW/BHDF compared to five with significant increases. Two whales with declines died shortly after being photographed, suggesting a link between body condition and mortality. Most (8/11) of the significant declines in condition were from one social pod (‘J-pod’), and all the whales that increased in condition were from K-pod (n = 3) and L-pod (n = 2). Notably, 11/16 whales that changed condition were reproductive-aged females and there were no adult males with significant changes. This likely reflects the increased energetic costs of lactation to reproductive females, and the nutritional help provided to adult males through prey sharing. These data demonstrate the utility of aerial photogrammetry as a non-invasive approach for providing quantitative data on body condition, and support monitoring the condition of reproductive females as key indicators of nutritional stress.