Jul 14

NOAA’s Dr. Dawn Noren Conducting Ground-Breaking Killer Whale Milk Study at SeaWorld San Diego

An important study being conducted here at SeaWorld San Diego has the potential to help endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Dawn Noren, a research fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is studying milk and blood serum samples from new mom Kalia, one of the killer whales here at the park. By analyzing these samples, Dr. Noren will assess the dynamics of persistent organic pollutant (POP) transfer from female killer whales to their calves during lactation.

It is hoped that this multi-year study will provide insight into one of the key risk factors identified for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. The high levels of POP may be having a harmful impact on this distinct killer whale population. The pollutants, which include DDTs, PCBs, and PBDEs, have been linked to reduced immune system efficiency and reproductive failure in other wild animal species. These compounds are transferred from mothers to their offspring during gestation and lactation and have health implications, particularly to first-born offspring who may receive higher concentrations pollutants through maternal transfer.

Blood samples from Amaya, Kalia’s nearly eight-month-old calf, are also being analyzed. Even though the pollutant levels in our park’s killer whales are lower than that of the Southern Resident whales due to their distinct diets, the results of this study can still be used to develop a clearer picture of the contaminant transfer process from females to their calves.

Dr. Noren’s research is a first-of-its-kind study to directly assess contaminant transfer from female killer whales to their calves as well as determine circulating pollutant levels. Repeated access to healthy killer whales at our parks over the course of lactation in a controlled and safe environment is the only way her research is possible.

While the intent is to gather data from multiple killer whale mothers and calves at SeaWorld over the next several years, the initial information acquired from this study with Kalia can be incorporated into future models that predict contaminant levels in individual whales and will inform risk assessments of pollutant-related health issues to wild Southern Resident killer whales.

Watch the video below to learn more.