Killer whale UC Davis

Credit: Joe Gaydos/UC Davis

A killer whale surfaces in Rosario Strait in Washington state. Experts gather in March to discuss personal health records for the whales.

The endangered southern resident killer whales of Puget Sound could soon get their own personal health records following a meeting of wildlife health experts being held March 28-29 in Seattle.

The meeting is sponsored by the SeaDoc Society, which is part of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the National Marine Mammal Foundation and NOAA Fisheries, to develop plans for individual health records.

The southern resident population of killer whales, currently numbering 84, can all be individually identified and are some of the best studied marine mammals in the world, said Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian at UC Davis and chief scientist with the SeaDoc Society. Researchers regularly collect important health data on them, such as photographs and samples of feces, breath, blubber and skin.

"We know their family history, we just don't have the data compiled in records that permit us to easily assess their health," Gaydos said.

Health records for whales

Just as your family doctor shares medical information with specialists, the challenge is to organize that data so that each animal has its own health record, allowing researchers to track the health of both individuals and the population as a whole.

Killer whale health experts from aquariums, universities and nonprofits from across the United States and Canada will attend the meeting. Speakers include Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, who will talk about the experience of the Gorilla Doctors project providing veterinary care for wild mountain gorillas. Additional experts include Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, whose experience assessing health in wild dolphins was critical for understanding the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Tracking the health of individual killer whales will help define the current threats to the entire population of southern resident killer whales, which is critical information when determining what we could do to help," Smith said.

NOAA Fisheries recently designated the southern residents as a one of eight national “Species in the Spotlight” that face high risk of extinction. A NOAA Fisheries action plan to promote recovery of the species calls for the development of individual health records for the whales to better track their condition and understand their health risks.  

The project is supported by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries, and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.