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It's been a bad year for the southern resident population of orcas in Puget Sound. Seven have gone missing and are presumed dead. Including the nearly 100-year-old matriarch of K Pod, along with two reproductive-age females vital to the future of the whales. One female, L-67 showed clear signs of emaciation before she disappeared in September. That leaves only 83 animals in this culturally-unique population of orca.
It's been a bad year for salmon too—the primary prey of southern resident orca. Researchers suspect the missing whales may have starved. Now researchers at the U of Washington Center for Conservation Biology are trying to answer that question using a specially trained dog. The Seattle Times reports how Tucker, a black Lab, has been deployed two of the past three summers to track orca scat from the bow of a research boat.
Analysis of hormone levels in the scat suggest mortality among the orca was highest when their thyroid hormone levels were lowest. This means they're malnourished. Katherine Ayres, a UW graduate student working on the study says: "It is interesting and sad. We have a link to what scientists have been saying for a long time."