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From the Vancouver Sun:

If whale expert John K.B. Ford has his way, school children one day will study a kind of North Pacific killer whale that preys on warm-blooded creatures — mostly harbour seals and sea lions, but also grey whales and seabirds.

They roam as far north as the Arctic Ocean and are now known as “transients” to distinguish them from fish-eating “resident” killer whales.

Ford and colleagues from Alaska to California want transient killer whales to be declared their own species, and they want them to have a new name: Bigg’s killer whales, in honour of Michael Bigg, the researcher whose observations off British Columbia and Washington state led to the identification of transients and whose mentoring inspired a generation of researchers still uncovering the mysteries of the animal at the top of the marine food chain.

“He was really very much the founding father of modern scientific studies regarding killer whales,” Ford said from his office at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., where he heads West Coast cetacean research for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Paul Wade, a U.S. killer whale expert at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said colleagues have begun using Bigg’s killer whales as the common name for transients in research papers.

“It seems to be catching on,” Wade said.

Work demonstrating that Bigg’s killer whales are a separate species also is progressing, he said, and that could lead to honouring Bigg with a formal scientific name for transients.

Michael Andrew Bigg was born in London in 1939. He moved to British Columbia with his family nine years later. He had a lifelong fascination with predators, Ford said, and for a time was a falconer.

“He was kind of a rare generalist as a biologist,” Ford said. “He was broadly interested in natural history.”

Just out of graduate school in 1970, Bigg was hired as a marine mammal biologist at the Pacific Biological Station. One assignment was an investigation of the status of killer whales, considered dangerous to humans and pests by salmon fishermen. By 1973, aquariums were paying $70,000 for a live killer whale and 48 had been captured for display.

Bigg and colleagues distributed sighting forms to fishermen and other coast residents. His report in 1976 concluded that just 200 to 350 orcas remained along the B.C. and Washington coasts, far fewer than thought, and too few to sustain additional live captures.

He also made a breakthrough that would create the framework for decades of additional research: He determined that individual whales could be identified by pigmentation patterns on the saddle patch at the base of their dorsal fins. That meant researchers could track whales to figure out their diets, family dynamics and communications with other whales.

“It was Mike’s realization that with a good-enough photograph, you could identify even the plainest looking fin without any obvious markings,” Ford said.

Bigg’s formal association with killer whales ended by early 1977. He was reassigned to other marine mammals, including northern fur seals, Ford said, but kept at killer whale research on the side. He had started to distinguish families of resident orcas that he suspected were targeting salmon. More rarely seen were killer whales that Bigg at first suspected were pod outcasts.

They turned out instead to be mammal-eaters. Genetic work on transients followed. Wade collaborated with National Marine Fisheries Service geneticist Phillip Morin and 14 other researchers on a 2011 paper that indicated resident and transient killer whales don’t eat or behave the same ways. They also don’t interbreed.

“The evidence suggests that the transients in particular are quite different than everybody else and probably shared an ancestor about 700,000 years ago,” Morin said from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif.

The scientists say at least three killer whale species likely roam the North Pacific, including offshore orcas that may feed on sleeper sharks, and three in the Antarctic. Killer whales are found in every ocean and DNA samples have been studied from the extreme north and south parts of the globe. Researchers are preparing to analyze samples from tropical and temperate waters, Morin said, to piece together the pattern of evolutionary divergence between types.

“The goal is to then try to compile the genetic data with all of other data — the behavioural, the acoustic, other molecular data, distribution — and come up with a description of killer whales globally, along with our recommendations for which should be species and which should be subspecies, if the data hold up those categories,” Morin said.

I hope that 700,000 year date was determined by something other than mitochondrial DNA. An analysis of a large sample of the genome would be nice. (Jerry Coyne explains why).

I would also like to know how absolute is the assertion that these animals don’t interbreed.

Hybridization between even really distinct species of cetacean is actually pretty common, and I would be surprised if these different types of orca never interbred. Never is one of those words that sets one up for error, for as soon as the thing  that you claim will never happen happens one time, you’re instantly 100 percent wrong.

I still think there is a good case for splitting up orcas into several species. These animals behave very differently from each other. They eat different things, and apparently, there isn’t much gene flow between them.

That would suggest that they are on their way to becoming distinct species, if they aren’t already.

If this taxonomy holds, then we have a good example of sympatric speciation, which is what happens when new species evolve out of common ancestor but share the same geographical range.

Just asimple variances in foraging “culture” has resulted in the development of genetically distinct orca lineages.

And that’s really quite amazing.

 

 

 

 

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From the LA Times blogs:

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plans Wednesday to sue Sea World for allegedly violating the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which bans slavery — by keeping orcas at parks in San Diego and Orlando, Fla., organization officials said Tuesday.

The lawsuit, set to be filed in San Diego federal court, is considered the first of its kind and, if successful, would represent a large enhancement of the animal-rights movement. Part of the lawsuit asserts that it is illegal to artificially inseminate the females and then take away their babies.

Sea World officials dismissed the lawsuit as a publicity stunt. PETA routinely pickets the park on Mission Bay.

The lawsuit seeks the release of three orcas (also called killer whales) from San Diego and two at Orlando. “All five of these orcas were violently seized from the ocean and taken from their families as babies,” said PETA President Ingred Newkirk.

PETA officials note that the 13th Amendment prohibits slavery but does appear to limit the ban only to human beings. “Slavery is slavery,” said PETA general counsel Jeffrey Kerr.

Kasatka, Corky and Ulises are at Sea World San Diego, Tilikum and Katina at Orlando. Tilikum, a six-ton male, grabbed a trainer in February 2010 and dragged her to the bottom, where she drowned.

In a statement, Sea World said that extending constitutional rights to killer whales “is baseless and in many ways offensive” and that “there is no higher priority than the welfare of the animals entrusted to our care.”

My response:  Are you effin’ kiddin’ me? (I didn’t use “effin'”– but you get the idea.)

I’m not a fan of keeping orcas or other cetaceans in captivity, but using the 13th amendment for this purpose is a dangerous precedent.

Allowing orcas to sue under those auspices would essentially create constitutional rights for animals without ever having a vote on it or passing any legislation.

Judicial activism happens all the time– on both sides. For example, it was  reinterpretation of the 14th amendment, which gave full citizenship rights to African American men, that gave corporations full citizenship rights in the US Supreme Court Decision known as Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886).

But I’d be very much surprised if this particular case went anywhere.

My guess is the orca slavery suit will be thrown out.

But you never know for sure.

PETA, I’m sure, is just doing this for propaganda purposes.

But it’s terrible waste of our federal court system just so they can use it for publicity.

It also takes away from the possibility of having a ration discussion about orcas in captivity.

When you do stupid things for attention, no one is going to take your arguments seriously.

Hear that, Herman Cain?

 

 

 

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Orca loves dogs

Not to eat:

Source.

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Orcas hunt gray whale

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At Raised By Wolves.

The discussion in the comments is  really good. Christopher from BorderWars (who regularly comments on this blog ) has some really good things to add.

Bottom line: I don’t see how an ethical person of any sort can condone keeping an orca in captivity.

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But now I am happy.

Look at the topic being discussed on Yahoo! News.

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Have I mentioned how much I hate Fox News?

Let me explain that etymology again.

They aren’t called killer whales because they are whales that kill things. Biologists don’t call them that (although Fox News biologists might). I prefer the term orca or grampus (although grampus also refers to Risso’s dolphin).

They aren’t actually whales. This is actually the largest species of dolphin.

They were called “whale killers,” because that’s what some populations do. They attack the big baleen whales, usually to kill their calves.

Source.

Someone reversed the term “whale killer” to “killer whale,” and that’s where we get the name.

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I would like for what he says at the end to not happen.

But my guess is it will.

Killer whale exhibits will be even more popular.

And this really should be a clarion call to seriously talk about ending the captive orca and dolphin industry.

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I find some of the discussion about the killer whale that killed a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando misses a major point.

No matter what method of training has been used on the animal, it is still a wild animal.

Dogs can be trained using all sorts of methods. They will put up with our shit.

Most wild animals will not.

If you think for one minute that you can train a six ton animal with electric goads and whips, I guess you haven’t seen what happens with a lot of elephants that are kept this way. Something like this happens:

Source.

The elephant had been shocked and beaten all its life. It decided it that it had had enough.

Because elephants are somewhat prone to  these “rampages,” I’m not so sure elephants belong in captivity either. They are just as intelligent and complex as orcas. Unlike orcas, they don’t leave us alone in the wild. They have a reason to hate us. We kill them for their tusks. We kill them if they raid our crops. We kill them to steal their babies. If an elephant encounters a person on foot in its natural habitat, it is more than likely going to charge. A captive elephant is very likely to go off.

As I noted earlier, wild orcas, for some reason, don’t consider humans to be prey. There is no documented case of a wild orca attacking anyone. If I read the following statement again, I am going to scream: “Well they don’t call them killer whales for nothing.” Actually, they don’t kill people in the wild.

I can’t say the same for captive ones.  These animals might be trained very differently from the way elephants are.

But their lives are so unnatural that their behavior is fundamentally changed. Their lives and their very being are simply out of their normal context.

These animals have much shorter lives in captivity than they do in the wild. I don’t think an an animal whose life is so caught up in sound can live very well in a concrete tank that is has a water filtration system running at full blast.

For an animal that is known to travel 100 miles a day at 3o miles per hour over the open ocean, the tank is little more than a very cruel prison.

In this prison, the animals are going to do things that they wouldn’t normally do.

Do I think for a minute that changing the methods for training killer whales would make them safer?

Absolutely not.

That is because we’re not getting to a question raised by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. In his work Love and Hate, Eibl-Eibesfeldt discusses a badger that he raised in captivity. The badger misbehaves in the house, but every time that Eibl-Eibesfeldt disciplines it, the badger attacks him. However, whenever he did the same to his dogs, the dog s “quickly [learned] to obey.”

Now as I noted a while ago,  Eibl-Eibsfeldt believed that the reason that dogs were so much easier to train is because they are social and form a social rank. European badgers are solitary.

This is nonsense. European badgers are not solitary at all. They live in family groups. Indeed, a typical badger sett has 6 to 8 individuals living in it. However, some family groups may contain as many as 35 badgers. These social groups are know as clans, and these clans have very complex social hierarchies. Eibl-Eibsfeldt was simply wrong about these animals being solitary.

Now, if that part of the argument is wrong, then another part is also at least somewhat dubious. Dogs are not obeying because of their natural history of strict social hierarchy.

If you’ll remember the dog documentary I linked to earlier this week, you’ll recall that the researchers at Eötvös Loránd University kept wolf puppies in the same manner that you’d keep domestic dogs.

The wolves eventually became like Eibl-Eibsfeldt’s  badger. They were unruly. They couldn’t learn the rules of the house. They became possessive of objects.

Now, we all know that wolves have something like a social organization. It is very well studied, although the original framework has been modified a bit.

You’d think that wolves would be very easily trained to not do things.

But they were just like Eibl-Eibsfeldt’s badger.

So it has to be another factor that allows dogs to learn rules and to put up with all of our training methods.

And that other factor is domestication.

Through domestication, dogs have developed certain cognitive skills that allow them to learn rules. They can learn to cooperate with us, and many dogs really want to cooperate with people.

Dogs are also not nearly as likely to respond with aggression when they are challenged as wild animals are.

If you start using some of these dog training methods on wild animals, the chances are much higher that these animals will respond with aggression.

That’s one reason why elephant handling is such a hazardous profession.

Virtually all elephant training methods are  based upon confrontation and force. Yes, they may be like this to each other, but I really don’t think you want an elephant asserting itself over you. My guess is that it won’t be pretty.

And if we adopted these methods for training orcas, I’m absolutely certain that it would do little to curb aggression in this species. In fact, it probably could make things worse.

The reason why orcas are trained using those positive reinforcement methods is really quite simple. There is no other way. You cannot make them do things.

It really doesn’t matter what training methods are being used on these animals. Captivity just isn’t the best place for them.

They’ve not been domesticated. They don’t have the social cognition skills or the desire to cooperate that domestic dogs have.

Even social wild animals can’t be expected to be like dogs.  To get to that same level of domestication, we’d need extensive selective breeding programs. We might be able to produce some genetically tame animals like the Soviets did wit their silver foxes, but if your goal is to produce animals that could one day augment wild populations, breeding for these traits is actually quite detrimental. (I suspect that this may be one reason why Mexican wolves have had such a hard time being reintroduced.)

Of course, orcas aren’t endangered. These animals are being kept in captivity for our entertainment purposes only. Now, that might be fine if these animals remained docile in their captive situation.

But it seems that killer whales don’t.

The best way to prevent killer whale attacks is to ban keeping them in captivity. It really serves no purpose. The education argument is a giant red herring.

We already know that these animals are amazing. I don’t think we have to watch them perform circus tricks to understand that.

Maybe it really is time to Free Willy.

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From CNN:

A killer whale killed a trainer Wednesday afternoon at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Florida, a public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said.

The 40-year-old woman, identified by sheriff’s spokesman Jim Solomons as Dawn Brancheau, was in the whale holding area about 2 p.m. when “she apparently slipped or fell into the tank and was fatally injured by one of the whales,” he said.

But a witness told CNN affiliate WKMG-TV that the whale approached the glass side of the 35-foot-deep tank at Shamu Stadium, jumped up and grabbed the trainer by the waist, shaking her so violently that her shoe came off.

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A SeaWorld employee who asked not to be identified confirmed the description of the attack and added that the whale involved is named Tillikum.

In 2006, a trainer at the adventure park was hospitalized after a killer whale grabbed him and twice held him underwater during a show at Shamu Stadium.
In 1999, Tillikum was blamed for the death of a 27-year-old man whose body was found floating on his back in a tank at SeaWorld, the apparent victim of a whale’s “horseplay,” authorities said then.

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The whale involved in the attack had killed before. That in itself should have been a warning. This isn’t a golden retriever.

I’m also not going to go anywhere near the training technique stuff.

That’s talking around the edges of the problem. We need to cut to the heart of the matter.

And to get to the heart of the matter, we have only a simple question:

Should we  even be keeping these cetaceans in captivity in the first place?

At one time I would have answered in the affirmative.

Those parks do provide funds for conservation and research on marine life.

They also provided awareness about how amazingly intelligent cetaceans are. At one time, whales and dolphins were blamed for reducing the productivity of fisheries, and there were regular culls.

But those days are long gone.

We now have the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and only aboriginal whalers can take them.

Now, I must admit that I enjoyed going to SeaWorld in Orlando when I was a boy.

I really liked watching the orcas do their behaviors. It was fun.

I really didn’t see the negative side of captive cetaceans.

Later on, I got to go to an animal training seminar in Hawaii that used live dolphins.(The seminar also included a dog that I later saw on Dogs with Jobs! I wish Nat Geo would bring that show back!)

I appreciate the animals. They are brilliant animals.  They live in complex societies. They care for each other. They bond very closely with their families.

I get that.

However, I’m not now sure that the captive lifestyle is really the best for them.

They live in a world of acoustics.

But in captivity, their echolocation sounds bounce off the concrete walls of their tanks.

The tanks are all they know.

In the wild, they travel hundreds of miles.

In captivity, they are stuck in a concrete tank.

With such complex animals, I don’t think we can provide them the ideal lifestyle in such an environment.

That’s why I don’t think it is appropriate to keep them in captivity anymore.

I saw this animal rightsish documentary a few years ago, and although it has that agenda, it really did change my perspective on this issue:

Source.

I don’t think there is a good reason to keep these animals in captivity. Keeping them in a tank is like putting me in a concrete box on Mars. I might be able to survive if I am given adequate food, oxygen, and water.

But would I thrive? Hell no.

It took me two trips to Arizona before I was able to consider it beautiful. I’m accustomed to  densely forested hills that are covered in dense forests. Dry places remind me of the summers when the grass wouldn’t grow and the rivers ran slow and black.

I can only imagine what it’s like for an orca in a tank. What does this animal feel in such a weird environment?

If we think about that question for a minute, the following conclusion is all but obvious:

Some animals just shouldn’t be in captivity. And this is one of them.

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I should be taken to task for calling these things killer whales. It seems only captive ones have any interest in killing us. Those famous ones that beach themselves to catch sea lions in Patagonia will allow people to swim near them entirely unmolested.

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I really don’t care that PeTA agrees with me on this issue. They got something right for once.

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The animal rights people are going to like that one.

I don’t know about the next post, which is on tail docking.

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Finally, I don’t know if you knew this or not, but the white shark has one natural predator.

And that’s the orca.

Source.

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed from this post, but the issue of killer whales in captivity really grinds my gears.

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