These bacteria and fungi could be a reason for the dwindling population of killer whales in Puget Sound
Scientists have identified an array of bacteria and fungi that exist in an orca’s mouth and are released when it comes to the surface and exhales. Some of these bacteria are good while others are dangerous capable of causing disease such as salmonella – a bacterium that is a frequent cause of food poisoning and even death in humans. Very little is known about its effects on marine animals or whales.
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Researchers believe the bacteria could point to a way to assess the overall health of these endangered marine mammals and could be a reason for why orca population is declining across Puget Sound.
“These animals are subject to many stressors, which reduce the competence of their immune systems.” Pete Schroeder marine mammal veterinarian and co-author of the study said.
Researchers followed the orcas by boat as they swam in Washington State waters and waited for the precise moment the animal broke the surface to breath. Then, using a 25-foot pole containing petri dishes, researchers leaned out and collected the droplets that sprayed out.
Researchers gathered the breath samples for four years and when they examined those samples, they stumbled across various bacteria, including the ones that can be fatal to this whale species.
“They're recruiting the bacteria in their habitats.” Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and study's lead author said.
Orcas or killer whales that inhabit Puget Sound region are facing a number of threats such as lack of prey, pollution and noise disturbance from vessels. They are one the four communities of northeast Pacific Ocean and are the only killer whales listed as endangered under U.S. Endangered Species List.
Researchers believe that orcas with weak immune systems can be susceptible to bacteria when they come to the surface and inhale containments from the sea surface resulting in respiratory disease.
By comparing surface waters and orca death records, researchers have noticed a trend. About 40 percent of orcas had some infection in the lung and in some cases; it was strong enough to contribute to their deaths, suggesting that respiratory diseases may be a leading cause of orca deaths.
Researchers are hoping their findings could help save orcas from further decline and used to counter challenges faced by endangered marine animal.