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Inbreeding: A Conservation Challenge for Iconic Killer Whales

March 30, 2023

New genome sequencing reveals the reason behind Southern Resident killer whales' failure to thrive.

A black and white Southern Resident killer whale leaping out of the water. The fin of another whale is visible and a boat and mountains are in the background.

On the West Coast, particularly in the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, killer whales, or orcas, are iconic and beloved. But a small population of them—Southern Resident killer whales—are endangered and, despite conservation efforts, have so far failed to recover. The Southern Resident killer whale population is a NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight, part of a concerted agency-wide effort launched in 2015 to spotlight and save the most highly at-risk marine species.

A new study, one that combines cutting-edge genome sequencing techniques and traditional field work, is giving scientists a clearer picture of the challenges facing the southern residents. We talk with Dr. Mike Ford, a senior research scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and senior author of the new analysis of the recently sequenced genome of the Southern Resident killer whales. This research was recently published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Learn more about the study