Researchers Discover New Population of Rare Killer Whales That Prey on Large Sea Mammals

"There's been a lot of information missing for some of these animals," University of British Columbia's Josh D. McInnes said of the study on Bigg's killer whales

Pod of Transient Killer Whales
Photo: Francois Gohier/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty

Researchers from the University of British Columbia are learning more about the Bigg's killer whales of the Pacific Northwest.

Although they're rarely known to travel to the coast, scientists have discovered a group of "outer coast transient whales" off the Canadian and U.S. west coasts. Between 2006 and 2019, there were 155 transient whale encounters, many between the coasts of Oregon and central California, with 26 spotted around Vancouver Island.

"These whales prefer deep water," said Josh D. McInnes, the study's lead author. "So they were found offshore near canyon systems, which are very productive areas where there is a lot of nutrient upwelling, and it attracts other marine life."

The coastal and outer-coast whales were previously believed to belong to the same population of Bigg's killer whales — mammal-eating transients that have been known to prey on smaller mammals like harbor seals and porpoises.

McInnes says the new group of whales targets elephant seals, oceanic dolphins, and grey whale calves.

Researchers also found an unknown group of killer whales far out in the Pacific Ocean that feeds on sharks. "We have no idea who they are," McInnes said. "They looked like transients. There was some similarities to them as well."

RELATED VIDEO: Killer Whale Saved After Stranded on Beach in Alaska

The study also found that the outer coast whales use a vocal dialect unique from other transient whales to communicate with other transient groups off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest.

"For me, this is big because there's been a lot of information missing for some of these animals," McInnes said, adding that this is just the beginning of his team's research.

In August, a group helped free a juvenile Bigg's killer whale stranded on a rocky coastline in the Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. The transient whales have been known to become live-stranded in the pursuit of prey, according to Bay Cetology.

"Our research on this specific topic published last year shows that all killer whales live stranded along the west coast of North America in the last 2 decades have been of the Bigg's ecotype, and all of them survived, sometimes with a little help," Bay Cetology wrote on Twitter.

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