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March 14, 2013

The Death of a Queen

On January 10, a recreational boater reported spotting the remains of an orca (killer whale) stranded on the shore.  Three days later, scientists from the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture and Land and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks arrived to conduct a full necropsy to gain insight into why the creature had died.

The whale was identified as Yakat, the matriarch of the so-called A4 pod that spends most of its time in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait.  While the necropsy will not be able to provide conclusive cause of death, Yakat’s death will provide insight into what orcas choose to eat when their favorite meal—salmon—is scarce, and her very location already provides clues as to where she takes her pod in the winter months.

Yakat leaves two surviving daughters, Nahwitti (A56) and Skagit (A35), at least four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all belonging to Skagit.  She also leaves behind Springer, her grand-niece and adopted daughter who brought attention to Yakat and her family when they generously adopted the orphaned whale in 2002 after it was rescued and released from a rehabilitation facility.

We know so much about Yakat and her matrilineal pod because of the ability to identify and track individual whales.  Unlike fish living in a school, many species of whale can be individually identified by unique markings.  They tend to live in family groups called pods, and because mothers nurse their young scientists can connect mothers to offspring.  Yakat was one of the first orcas ever identified by the late Dr. Michal Bigg, the Canadian marine biologist who developed the identification method for orcas—based largely on the shape of the “saddle patch” behind the whale’s dorsal fin.  (Humpbacks are identified by the pattern on the underside of their flukes, and blue whales by the speckle pattern around their dorsal fin.)

Yakat has led the A4 pod, which includes three distinct subgroups, known as matrilines, and sixteen members, since her identification in 1972. The pod even has its own Wikipedia page, including its history, through the various tragedies it has suffered—more recorded deaths than any other group in the community—to its current status today.

In the wake of the leader’s death, some researchers wondered if the pod will remain intact.  Daughters usually carry on successfully after the death of their mother, whereas sons struggle more with the loss.  Yakat’s only son died before her in 2010, but scientists assume that Nahwitti and Springer will remain together.  They hope that Skagit will remain close, though she tends to be more independent with such a large family of her own.

Federal law governs the possession of marine mammals, and members of the public should report any stranded or deceased animals they encounter.

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