FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. -- Microorganisms that can cause disease have been found in the fecal samples of a starving 4-year-old southern resident orca, raising the possibility that the struggling mammal may be diseased as well as malnourished.
Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said J50 was shown to have a "couple of pathogens" in DNA samples recently collected.
Pathogens are a bacteria or virus that can cause a disease.
The Center for Whale Research released this video of the mother orca still carrying her dead calf on Tuesday:
Hanson said the pathogens have been sent to veterinarians for review. It is unknown how and if they are impacting J50.
Earlier this month, J50 was spotted "severely emaciated" with her bones and ribs poking through her skin. She is part of the southern resident orca "baby boom" that occurred when eleven calves were born between 2014-2016. Only five of the calves from the "baby boom" remain.
Southern resident numbers are the lowest they've been in decades, and the species is on the brink of extinction.
J50's breath was particularly rank, and indicated the calf was in ketosis, burning fat to stay alive.
Ken Balcomb, the founder of the Center for Whale Research, said regardless of the pathogens, J50 still faces the main problem troubling all southern residents: food.
"The (Southern resident orca) population is experiencing very poor years of food abundance," Balcomb said. "Starvation, disease and toxic shock are at work to bring the population down to the current prey support level."
A week of J35 carrying her dead calf
On Tuesday, there were no sightings of J35, the mother seen carrying her dead calf for a week.
Balcomb said the morning habitat was foggy, and no orcas could be seen.
There have only been "brief occasions," of mother killer whales carrying deceased calves, Balcomb said. He knows of photographs from New Zealand of an orca carrying a baby that was decomposing.
Also, he has heard stories of a female killer whale tending to a deceased baby near Vancouver Island in the 60s and 70s.
Balcomb called J35's refusal to drop her dead calf a "tour of grief."