Killer whales preying on a blue whale calf on the Costa Rica Dome: genetics, morphometrics, vocalisations and composition of the group

Main Article Content

Robert L. Pitman
Holly Fearnbach
Richard LeDuc
James W. Gilpatrick Jr.
John K. B. Ford
Lisa T. Ballance


Killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations in high latitude, nearshore areas appear to regularly exhibit prey specialisation among two or more sympatric ecotypes, but nearly nothing is known about populations that inhabit open ocean areas or tropical latitudes. On 26 September 2003, during a cetacean survey in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, a group of an estimated 19 killer whales was encountered feeding on a calf of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus); the location was 10°58’N, 88°40’W, 230km west of Nicaragua. The whales were studied for 2.5 hours and during this time skin biopsy samples were collected, acoustic recordings made, aerial and lateral photographs taken and behavioural observations recorded. The 19 individuals identified included 4 males (3 adults, 1 subadult), 5 cow-calf pairs and 5 other females/subadult males. Using aerial photogrammetry, body lengths of 17 different animals were measured: the largest male (who carried the carcass most of the time) was 8.0m long; and the largest female (with a calf) was 6.1m. From 10 biopsy samples, two distinct haplotypes were identified that differed from resident (i.e. fish-eating ecotype) killer whales in the northeastern Pacific by one and two base pairs, respectively. The single discrete call recorded was a typical killer whale call but it had a two-part pitch contour that was structurally distinct from calls recorded to date in the North Pacific. These observations reaffirm that calves of even the largest whale species are vulnerable to predation, although by migrating to calving areas in the tropics, where killer whale densities are lower, baleen whales should be able to increase their overall reproductive fitness, as suggested by Corkeron and Connor (1999).

Article Details