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Dec 8, 2014 1:13 PM

Dead orca was pregnant with full-term fetus

The Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) The necropsy on the endangered orca found dead off Vancouver Island showed it was pregnant with a full-term fetus, and that someone removed several teeth from the dead killer whale before it could be examined.

Experts had speculated the death may have arisen from birth complications. Biologists are awaiting additional tests to determine the cause of death, with preliminary findings possible later this week.

A death examination completed on the calf Monday revealed it was a female whale and close to full term, said Paul Cottrell, Pacific marine mammals coordinator for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"It's a double hit there," he said, referring to the struggling population of endangered whales.

Cottrell also said someone removed several teeth from the animal. Four teeth were cut at the gums, and three others were damaged.

"It came as a surprise to everyone that someone would do such a senseless act," he said. "A number of them (teeth) had been cut off. It's unclear why they would do that."

It's illegal to possess part of an endangered animal.

"We're not aware of a black market for killer whale parts," Cottrell said. "We're taking considerable measures to find out who (did this). We do have a number of leads. It's illegal. And we don't want any type of market developing for endangered or threatened species."

The orca known as J-32 was found floating in the water Thursday near Courtenay. It was moved to a boat launch Friday for the necropsy, which took place Saturday.

The death leaves 77 animals in the Puget Sound orca population, which is listed as endangered in both the U.S. and Canada.

"The fetus was decomposing," said Ken Balcomb, a scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, who assisted in the necropsy said Monday. "The tests will be able to tell whether the fetus was already dead before the mother died, and therefore may have been the cause of her death."

Tissue samples from the orca and the fetus will be examined at a number of labs across North America, Cottrell said. Results are expected in four to six weeks.

"Hopefully there will be enough evidence in tissue and fetus to understand what's going wrong," Balcomb said.

He said he does not think it's a natural birthing issue because "we know that the levels of toxins that are in these whales are harmful to reproductive status."

There hasn't been a successful birth in the population for 2 years, Balcomb said.

The orca looked healthy but its blubber level was thinner than usual, indicating that it had poor nutrition for some time, Balcomb said.

"What we do know is that if we could provide a food supply that's abundant and healthy, they wouldn't have to rely on their blubber storage for energy," he said.


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