Northwest Fisheries Science Center

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Document Type: Journal Article
Center: NWFSC
Document ID: 660
Title: Assessing the age-distributions of killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations from the composition of endogenous fatty acids in their outer-blubber layers
Author: D. P. Herman, C. O. Matkin, G. M. Ylitalo, J. W. Durban, M. B. Hanson, M. E. Dahlheim, J. M. Straley, P. R. Wade, K. L. Tilbury, R. H. Boyer, Ronald W. Pearce, Margaret M. Krahn
Publication Year: 2008
Journal: Marine Ecology Progress Series
Volume: 372
Pages: 289-302
Abstract: Knowledge of the age distributions of killer whale Orcinus orca populations is critical to assess their status and long-term viability. Except for accessible, well-studied populations for which historical sighting data have been collected, currently there is no reliable benign method to determine the specific age of live animals for remote populations. To fill this gap in our knowledge of age structure, we describe new methods by which age can be deduced from measurements of specific lipids, endogenous fatty acids (FAs) and FA ratios present in their outer blubber layers. Whereas correlation of wax and sterol esters with age was reasonable for female resident killer whales, it was less well-defined for males and transients. Individual short-, branched-, and odd-chain FAs correlated better with age for transients and residents of both sexes, but these single parameter relationships were population specific and seemingly varied with long-term diet. Alternatively, a simple, empirical multi-linear model derived from the combination of 2 specific FA ratios enabled the ages of individual eastern North Pacific killer whales to be predicted with good precision (Ã = ±3.8 yr), appeared to be independent of individual diet and was applicable to both genders and ecotypes. The model was applied to several less well-studied killer whale populations to predict their age distributions from their blubber FA compositions, and these distributions were compared with a population of known age structure. Most interestingly, these results provide evidence for the first time that adult male transient killer whales appear to have lower life expectancies than do their resident counterparts in Alaska.