Pathology findings and correlation with body condition index in stranded killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the northeastern Pacific and Hawaii from 2004 to 2013

Stephen Raverty, Judy St Leger, Dawn P. Noren, Kathy Burek Huntington, David S. Rotstein, Frances M.D. Gulland, John K.B. Ford, M. Bradley Hanson, Dyanna M. Lambourn, Jessie Huggins, Martha A. Delaney, Lisa Spaven, Teri Rowles, Lynne Barre, Paul Cottrell, Graeme Ellis, Tracey Goldstein, Karen Terio, Debbie Duffield, Jim RiceJoseph K. Gaydos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding health and mortality in killer whales (Orcinus orca) is crucial for management and conservation actions. We reviewed pathology reports from 53 animals that stranded in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Hawaii between 2004 and 2013 and used data from 35 animals that stranded from 2001 to 2017 to assess association with morphometrics, blubber thickness, body condition and cause of death. Of the 53 cases, cause of death was determined for 22 (42%) and nine additional animals demonstrated findings of significant importance for population health. Causes of calf mortalities included infectious disease, nutritional, and congenital malformations. Mortalities in sub-adults were due to trauma, malnutrition, and infectious disease and in adults due to bacterial infections, emaciation and blunt force trauma. Death related to human interaction was found in every age class. Important incidental findings included concurrent sarcocystosis and toxoplasmosis, uterine leiomyoma, vertebral periosteal proliferations, cookiecutter shark (Isistius sp.) bite wounds, excessive tooth wear and an ingested fish hook. Blubber thickness increased significantly with body length (all p < 0.001). In contrast, there was no relationship between body length and an index of body condition (BCI). BCI was higher in animals that died from trauma. This study establishes a baseline for understanding health, nutritional status and causes of mortality in stranded killer whales. Given the evidence of direct human interactions on all age classes, in order to be most successful recovery efforts should address the threat of human interactions, especially for small endangered groups of killer whales that occur in close proximity to large human populations, interact with recreational and commercial fishers and transit established shipping lanes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0242505
JournalPloS one
Issue number12 December
StatePublished - Dec 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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