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Researchers Renew Efforts To Save Endangered Orcas With Gene Mapping


A new research by scientists will help them sequence genomes of critically endangered orcas of the Pacific Northwest in order to understand in better ways their genetics which could save them from possible extinction. Scientists from the BGI and National Oceanic and Northwest Fisheries Science Center have announced their collaboration on Thursday. Skin and other samples were collected from dead or living orcas over the last 20years. Sequencing of the total genetic code of 100 or more southern resident killer whales will be done, the initial results of which will be published next year. Many internal factors like variation in genes in immune systems or inbreeding could be explained by this process.

Factors that are gradually leading to lessening of orcas are boat noise, pollution, death of chinook salmon, preferred prey of fish-eating orcas and decreasing reproduction. Last month, a young orca died in spite of international efforts to save her. That brought down the orca count to 74 which is the lowest in more than 30years. Mike Ford found in a study in early-2018 that all orca calves were fathered by only two males since 1990. Inbreeding affects the power of a female orca to conceive and likelihood of the offspring’s survival. Lack of salmon causes nutritional deficiencies making pregnancies of female orcas difficult. Researchers from Washington and other places found that between 2007 and 2014, almost 2/3 of pregnancies in female orcas had failed.

Genome sequencing will be done by BGI and results will be given to scientists, biologists and US fisheries. The data will be compared to genomes of Alaskan killer and mammal-eating transient whales that have been thriving. BGI CEO Yiwu He said that like everyone, he too was captivated by orcas. He added that BGI has previous experience in genome sequencing of animals, plants and humans. Kevin Werner said that more experts would be enlisted to solve the problems. Ford said that other issues like contamination or lack of prey could be addressed and maybe even new knowledge about orcas could be gained.

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