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Swimming with Species – Orcas
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Swimming with Species – Orcas

Today’s species is the Orca!

Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, are among the best-known marine animals. They are iconic mammals of Canada’s wildlife, and hold an important symbolism among the Native communities. Orcas are super easy to identify with their unique tuxedo-like colouration and white “eye” patches. Since they live in all five oceans, we can find them to the east, west, and north of Canada! Now, we really should call them Orcas because “killer whales” is quite misleading. You see, Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family, (not whales)! By large, we’re talking males up to 9 meters long and weigh 6 to 9 thousand kilograms, that’s 7-10 tons! Females are a bit smaller, and are about 7 meters long and 4 to 7 thousand kilos (5-7 tons). [caption id="attachment_38463" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Photo by Nicole Peshy, an Orca hunting a Sea Lion.[/caption]   Like most members of the dolphin family, Orcas are highly social. They live in groups called a pod which can consist of 10 to 40 related individuals. Research has found that there are different “types” of pods, for which scientists have used to classify and identify groups of Orcas. These are; Northern and Southern Resident type, Northern and Southern Transient type, and Offshore type. Differences between types can be subtle such as variations in vocal patterns and dorsal fin shapes, or more pronounced such as their preferred diet. Offshore and Residents Orcas will feed predominantly on fish; schooling fish for the Offshores, and coastal fish and squid for the Resident Orcas. Transient pods, on the other hand, feed almost exclusively on other marine mammals. Speaking of food, Orcas got their nicknames, killer whales, from their hunting strategy. Orcas are apex predators, or top predators of the oceans, and hunt in packs, quite fiercely. When a pod isn’t hunting, they spend time socializing with each other. They’ll travel, rest, explore, and play together. The most famous play behaviour is called breaching; when they dived out of the water’s surface into the air with leaps and twirls. In essence, they need to breach to come to the surface for respiration, but, they do so with fantastic style! Orcas aren’t the only ones though, most whales and dolphins perform these jumps, twirls and tail slaps. In addition, Orcas communicate with echolocation, which mean the use of sound waves to locate and identify objects within their surroundings. This helps them navigate for foraging and just for an Orca to tell another Orca their location. Orcas have long lifespans! They can live up 40-50 years old. However, females tend to live longer and can reach up to 80 years of age. Both females and males reach sexual maturity in their “teens” being 12-17 years old. Pods of different families will find one another to mate with. This keeps their genetic make-up stronger, versus if they were to inbreed. The gestation period is a little more than a year with 17 months. Babies are born with the same colouration as adults, so they really do look like miniature versions of their mother! [caption id="attachment_38462" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Photo by Eileen Redding[/caption] As social animals, offspring need their mother and pod members to learn behaviours, feed, and be safe from predators. It takes about a year before a baby is weaned, therefore it is crucial that mom and baby stay together during this time. If a baby gets lost, or gets separated from their mom, they will have a high chance of dying, not knowing how to survive on their own. Once weaned, the offspring stays with its natal pod for life. Orcas intrigue scientists with their complex behaviours. They are still so much to learn about them since scientists have only be able to conduct studies close to shores, and/or in captivity. Not only are parenting behaviours observed among pods, but pod members have been observed to teach younger members foraging and hunting skills. Pods of different “types” developed their own “dialect” for whistles, calls, and clicks, which is passed on to their offspring! But most fascinating is their ability to mourn. For example, when a baby dies, a mother will carry the body for days until she has “moved on”. This has been called a “Tour of Grief”. According to the ICUN, there is insufficient data to conclude a species assessment status other than “Data Deficient (DD)”. However, Orcas are still victims to many threats, most of them human-related. For one, commercial fisheries contribute to increased accidental net entrapment and decreased prey availability to native wildlife. Oil spills and toxic build-up via human waste affects all large species like Orcas, because toxins will accumulate in dangerous amounts within their fat cells. In addition, just as there are more cars on the roads, there are more ships asea. We don’t think of it; however, water traffic affects water acoustics, which then effects echolocation for Orcas and all other species that use this method of communication! Fortunately, they are people who do not take the threat of Orcas’ disappearance lightly. Conservation organizations like Nature Canada are pressing governments to urge the continuation of research projects, recovery plans, and imply more wildlife protection. Do you want to help out but think “oh well I’m just one person, right?” Wrong! You can help! Every step counts. Become more aware of what you’re buying and try to buy environmentally friendly items. Support sites such as Nature Canada that educate the public about our endangered species and provide guides to good stewardships. Participate in Orca educational programs with your provincial wildlife organizations. And lastly, spread the word! Post, share, and tweet about saving orcas. References: http://naturecanada.ca/what-we-do/naturevoice/endangered-species/know-our-species/orca/ http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/15421/0 https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Orcinus_orca/ https://bc.ctvnews.ca/orca-s-tour-of-grief-over-after-carrying-dead-calf-for-nearly-3-weeks-1.4049902  

Why We Should Protect The Fraser River Estuary
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Why We Should Protect The Fraser River Estuary

Written by Nature Canada’s writing intern, Gabriel Planas The Fraser River Estuary is a large area of interconnected marine, estuarine, freshwater and agricultural habitats, near Vancouver. With almost 17,000 hectares of wetland, the estuary supports a variety of  habitats such as  salt and  estuarine marshes, mudflats, and deep tidal waters. These habitats are crucial to the 560 species found in the Fraser River Estuary. Killer Whales, Townsend Moles, and even Sockeye Salmon depend on this area for migration and residential purposes. Some species, such as the Western Sandpiper, depend on the region so heavily that roughly 500,000 Western Sandpipers visit the mud flats of Roberts Bank every day. Sockeye Salmon is  the most important commercial species among the hundreds found in the Fraser River Estuary. An estimated 10 million salmon make their way back to the Fraser Estuary every year. While this may seem impressive, due to warming waters, pollution, overfishing and the spread of farmed fish parasites, these numbers are dropping. Image of sockeye salmonUnfortunately, the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of  Fraser River Estuary habitats impact more than just the populations of salmon. Being home to Canada’s third largest urban center that functions on the largest port in the region poses a clear danger to the Estuary, as human populations are estimated to grow to 1.4 million by 2040. This growth in population has influenced current and proposed urban and industrial developments to use land formerly inhabited by local wildlife. Additionally, the conversion of open agricultural fields to berry crops, greenhouses and other intensive uses has reduced farmland habitats used by waterfowl, shorebirds and owls. The push to build the Kinder-Morgan pipeline and increase the volume of crude oil and the amount of Diluted Bitumen being transported through the region  also creates risk for the health of the Estuary. The amount of tanker traffic in the Salish Sea near the Estuary  is expected to rise dramatically, driving up the risk of oil spills drastically. Additionally, Diluted Bitumen extracted from tar sands and transported through the pipeline is considered more toxic and far more destructive to the environment than crude oil, which makes the  prospect of a pipeline or tanker spill even more worrisome. Difficulties for the Fraser River Estuary are not limited to systemic issues, the introduction of foreign species to habitats and recreational disturbances contribute to the loss of habitats within the Fraser River Estuary. It is important for us, as humans, to understand the kinds of consequences our actions can cause. Nature Canada is dedicated to spreading the word about  these at-risk areas and advocating for their protection. Check out our proposed protected areas page to learn more about these unique habitats and what we are doing to ensure a future for them.

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Killer Whales in the Canadian Arctic – A New Force to Contend With
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Killer Whales in the Canadian Arctic – A New Force to Contend With

[caption id="attachment_33210" align="alignleft" width="150"]becka-tulips Guest blogger Rebecca Kennedy[/caption] This post was written by guest blogger Rebecca Kennedy. Known as “aarluk” in Inuktitut, the Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca) is featured as Nature Canada's calendar photo for March 2018.

About the Killer Whale

One of the world’s largest animals, the Orca belongs to the Dolphin family (Delphinidae). Males can reach ten metres in length and 22,000 kilograms in weight. Females are smaller, but still considerable, at 8.5 metres long and 7,500 kilograms. Highly intelligent and distinctive for its black and white colouration, these magnificent creatures are also deadly. Poised at the top of the oceanic food chain, they are carnivores whose diet is often geographic and population specific. The Killer Whale’s menu could be fish heavy—such as salmon, herring, and tuna—or comprise larger marine life, such as seals, sea lions, penguins, sharks, and other whales and porpoises. Extremely social, Orcas live (and hunt) in matriarchal family pods typically comprising five to fifty whales and use echolocation to communicate. [caption id="attachment_35651" align="alignright" width="384"] A Killer Whale surfaces in the Strait of Georgia. Image courtesy of Gary Sutton.[/caption] Killer Whales are distributed throughout the world, from the polar ice caps to the tropics near the Equator. In Canadian waters, there are noted populations in the northern Pacific along British Columbia, and, though less commonly, in the Atlantic and Arctic regions. In recent years, however, this has begun to change, as sea ice both recedes and occurs for shorter times each year.

Heading North and Staying There

One consequence of increasing melting and retreating ice and the growing unpredictability of ice formation schedules is the change in roaming patterns of Killer Whales, who now venture into far northern waters where they previously did not. Killer Whales typically avoid ice because of their high dorsal fins. With the loss of year-round sea ice in the Arctic, however, these cetaceans, once largely absent from the region, are now both spending more time there and going to areas that were formerly inaccessible due to permanent or seasonal ice cover. For example, Killer Whale sightings, once rare in Hudson Bay, have been reported not only during summer months but in winter as well. Up north, the whales can miscalculate when the water will freeze and become trapped in ice, like what happened near the small northern Quebec village of Inukjuak in January 2013. A pod of a dozen Orcas became stuck, stranded in an opening of water just ten feet wide in northeastern Hudson Bay. Visibly stressed, the whales thrashed and took frantic turns surfacing for oxygen. Fortunately for them, the weather changed, causing the ice to break, and they were able to escape. The incident called attention to the shifting patterns of Arctic freezing due to climate change. [caption id="attachment_35657" align="alignleft" width="300"] A pod of narwhals in northern Canada, August 2005. Image courtesy of Kristin Laidre.[/caption]

The Orca Effect on the Arctic Ecosystem

Killer Whales in the Arctic are also disrupting the region’s fragile existing ecosystem. The disturbance of Narwhals is one such documented effect. Narwhals, nicknamed “sea unicorns” for the prominent tusks seen on males, are shy, wary whales who have been difficult to study due to the remoteness of their chosen habitats—two of three recognized populations of Narwhals live in Canadian Arctic waters, with the third occurring in eastern Greenland. A 2017 study demonstrated that the presence of Killer Whales drastically alters the behavior and distribution of Narwhals. Narwhals will move to and remain closer to the shore when Killer Whales are nearby, rightfully fearful and frazzled by the predator in the midst. Killer Whales, who hunt in packs, will try to push Narwhals into deeper waters and then encircle their panicked prey. By moving to shallower waters to flee Killer Whales, Narwhals become farther from the abundant stocks of fish that they eat. Additionally, staying closer to shore makes them more vulnerable to hunters. With Narwhals an important food source for the Inuit, the encroachment of Killer Whales into the Arctic also increases the competition for limited food sources. In addition to the Narwhal, Killer Whales in the Arctic are also preying on Beluga Whales and Bowhead Whales. With receding sea ice and continuing climate change, Killer Whales are poised to become a major Arctic predator to contend with. Today scientists continue to monitor Killer Whales and their impact on the Arctic marine environment. One tool that has proven particularly useful is questioning the local Inuit who directly observe these whales’ behaviors and interactions in the Arctic every day. Known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), scientists combine these firsthand observations and cultural knowledge accrued over generations with their research to help form a clearer picture of Orcas in the Arctic. Acknowledgments: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, NOAA Fisheries, RCI, Science Daily
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Listen in on an underwater musical… starring whales!
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Listen in on an underwater musical… starring whales!

Whales are social animals. Just like humans, they communicate by talking to each other: with clicks, squeaks, moans and murmurs that can help them navigate the ocean and find food. Just like bats, echolocation means that sound waves are sent out, bounce off objects and reflect back to the individual. This is also how whales navigate, assess their surroundings and forage for food. Underwater echolocation is even more efficient, since sounds travels faster in water than in air.

Toothed VS Baleen
Morphology of teeth and skull structure differ between the two major groups affecting the sounds produced by each. Toothed whales make clicks and squeaks, whereas baleen whales make moans and murmurs. All whales use very low frequencies and scientists need special equipment to analyze the sounds. Take a listen:

Humpback Whale Song

Sperm Whale Clicks

 
Feeding Communication
A group of whales is called a pod. Whales are social feeders and will come together to forage in busy prey areas. Sound is used to communicate between animals. Humpback Whales, for example, eat krill and small schooling fish. One whale will announce their find to the others and a feeding frenzy will begin. Listen below to hear contact calls: “moos” and “whups” and finally, a feeding cry that translates to: “look guys, I found the jackpot!”   [audio mp3="https://wxv73zw8wg-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Humpback_whale_moo_etc_25Sep01@0840.mp3"][/audio] Contact Call: Moo. Courtesy National Park Service.   [audio mp3="https://wxv73zw8wg-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Humpback_whale_whup_24Oct00@131753.mp3"][/audio] Contact Call: Whup. Courtesy National Park Service.   [audio mp3="https://wxv73zw8wg-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Humpback_whale_feeding_call_29Jul00@133212.mp3"][/audio] Feeding Cry. Courtesy National Park Service.   Image of a Humpback Whale
Different Dialects
Humans aren’t the only ones with dialects! Studies dating back from the late 1960’s started to put the songs and sounds into like-groups and realized there was a pattern to the sets. They're also regional: songs that are heard in the Pacific are not heard in the Atlantic. Listen below to hear the songs of the Blue Whales from different oceans. These recordings have been increased by 10x in order for our human ears to hear.

Pacific Blue Whale

Atlantic Blue Whale

Play Time
In the deep blue, whales lurking underwater emit calls to announce their presence, to detect their surroundings and - sometimes - just because they want to! Whales produce some of the most haunting noises on earth. But if you can get past the eeriness of the sounds, you can appreciate the beauty of the songs.   [audio mp3="https://wxv73zw8wg-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Humpback-Song-Sitka-Straley-45sec.mp3"][/audio] Humpback Whale Song. Credit Encounters. [audio mp3="https://wxv73zw8wg-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/hbw_bubblefeed_snippet_Jul_21_2003.mp3"][/audio] Humpback Whale Vocals. Credit National Park Service. [audio mp3="https://wxv73zw8wg-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/transientKWs_7_14_2005_10_32_16_12sec.mp3"][/audio] Transient Killer Whale Vocalizations. Credit National Park Service.  
Noisy Threats
Activity from cargo ships, cruise ships and fishing boats has increased in our waterways each decade. Together, this means an increase in the noise traffic of the ocean. This can create problems for whales, who have to use more energy producing louder noises and are confused by competing sounds. Fish are also sensitive to noise and vibrations and often run away, increasing the difficulty of a hunt.  
Want to help whales?
Whales on the east coast need your help! Over 20 species of marine mammals migrate through the Laurentian Whale Passage every year. Right now, the area is unprotected and at risk from oil and gas.

Species spotlight: Orca
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Species spotlight: Orca

Common name: Orca, or Killer Whale Latin name: Orcinus orca Status under SARA: There are several populations of Orca found in Canadian waters, some of which are considered “transient” and others that are “resident”. BC’s Northeast Pacific southern resident population is Endangered; BC’s Northeast Pacific northern resident, transient and offshore populations are each listed as Threatened. The Northwest Atlantic/Eastern Arctic population has been proposed for listing as Special Concern. Range: Members of the various populations are found in Canada’s Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans both in deep offshore waters and in near shore, coastal and estuarine areas. Orcas are not known to occur in the waters of the central Arctic where sea ice is more persistent. Population Estimate: Fewer than 78 individuals are thought to remain in BC’s Pacific southern resident population, while up to 200 individuals could remain in BC’s Pacific northern resident population. Both populations have experienced steady declines in recent years. Size: On average less than 9 m in length for adult males, and less than 7.7 m for adult females. The prominent dorsal fins of adult males can stand up to 1.8 m tall, while the dorsal of females and juveniles are about 1 m in height and tend to appear more hook-like in shape. The Story: This iconic marine species is well-known among Canadians and are easy to recognize given their black and white pattern and tall dorsal fin. British Columbia’s resident populations are unique in that they tend to travel in larger groups, or “pods”, than their transient and offshore cousins, and they show unique behaviours and dietary preferences. Resident populations predominantly feed on fish and not marine mammals, and as such their numbers seem to fluctuate with the availability of their prey - the five different salmon species on BC’s coast (i.e., Sockeye, Pink, Chum, Coho and Chinook salmon). As a result, BC’s resident killer whale populations are critically linked to the fate of salmon, whose own numbers have been declining in recent years. The 2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry was even formed to investigate the decline of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon. And it doesn’t stop there – impacts on the food supply and habitat that Pacific salmon rely upon can ultimately impact BC’s resident Orcas. Given the intricacy of linkages between BC’s freshwater salmon spawning grounds and the coastal and near shore waters where adult salmon serve as food for resident Orca populations, we need to be prudent and conservation-minded with industrial developments and other human activities that could disrupt nature’s balance in BC – and elsewhere. To provide a voice for nature in these matters, Nature Canada and BC Nature are working with the UVic Environmental Law Centre, as interveners in the hearings for the TransMountain project. This project which would see large increases in oil tanker traffic – and the risk of one or more serious oil spills – throughout the range of BC’s southern resident Orca population. Under SARA, both the critical marine habitat of these Orcas, and the individual whales themselves, are protected from harassment, harm and destruction. Let’s hope that nature's voice makes a positive difference for BC’s southern resident and other Orca populations!

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