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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Story of L87 Onyx

In early November Jeanne and I gave a talk at a naturalists' workshop about Southern Resident killer whale associations. The general story of Southern Resident pods is that male and female offspring stay with their mother for their entire life, and that pods, made up several related family groups, travel together all the time. In reality, the picture gets a little more complex, and when we're watching whales throughout the summer Jeanne and I love to try and figure out who is with whom. The unexpected associations give us a little more insight into their complex society, which we, I think, barely understand.

One of the most intriguing stories that has developed over the last couple of years is that of L87 Onyx. Onyx is a male that was born in 1992 to L32 Olympia. Olympia passed away in 2005, and often when a whale loses its mother, it will often associate with its closest remaining family members. In Onyx's case, we would have expected this to be his sister (L22 Spirit), nephews (L79 Skana and L89 Solstice), or cousin (L85 Mystery). Instead, since the death of his mother, Onyx has been traveling with K-Pod.

L87 Onyx (right) with "surrogate mom" K11 Georgia in 2009

We occasionally see whales travel temporarily with other pods, but as far as we know, Onyx has been with K-Pod since 2005. Specifically, he latched onto older females K7 Lummi and K11 Georgia. For the first couple years he was seen almost exclusively with them, and after Lummi died in 2007/2008, he stayed with Georgia. Over time, he has started associating with other K-Pod whales as well.

Never in the last 40 years of observations has their been a documented case of a whale "switching pods". Even L7 Canuck and L53 Lulu, who for the last couple of seasons have spent the entire summer with J-Pod, switch back to L-Pod for the winter months. Onyx doesn't do this: he is with K-Pod all year round.

K25 Scoter (left) with L87 Onyx in 2008

Female orcas seem to be the glue that holds the pods together. First of all, pods are matrilineal. Second of all, females live long beyond reproductive age, a rarity in the natural world. This indicates that they may play an important cultural role for the pod. Indeed, if an elder female dies, there is often a lot of reshuffling in social associations and even traveling routes.

Killer whale scientist Alexandra Morton, who focuses mostly on the Northern Resident killer whales, says that males who lose their mother have to latch on to another female family member, otherwise they often become "satellites" and associate with all different groups of whales. She notes that satellite males don't usually survive very long, and also states that in her observations males will only associate with whales their mom has introduced them to.

All of this makes Onyx somewhat of an enigma. He has surviving female family members, but instead has chosen to associate with an older female in an entirely different pod. It begs the question: what was the relationship between Onyx's mom Olympia and his surrogate mom Georgia? Based on Alexandra Morton's theory, Onyx must have met Georgia through Olympia, and the connection must have been strong enough to "overrule" his relationships with his more immediate family.

This raises some interesting practical questions as well. How long do we consider Onyx a member of L-Pod rather than a member of K-Pod? (He will always remain L87.) There's a lot of long-term sighting data that relies specifically on reports of which pods were present. When reporting whale sightings to one another and to researchers, then, is it accurate to say K- and L-Pods were present when in reality it was K-Pod plus just L87? Is it anymore accurate to say just K-Pod was present when L87 was also there?

L87 Onyx (left) with his new family in K-Pod in October 2008

One interesting point I like to make when talking about Onyx is that if we started studying the killer whales today, and wanted to put together the familial associations like the researchers did in the early 1970s, we would designate L87 Onyx and K11 Georgia's son. Family relationships were largely determined by associations, and Onyx swims right next to Georgia like he's her son. It makes me wonder if this really is the first time a whale has switched family groups. Some of the whales we assume are the direct offspring of the females with which they closely associate may actually be satellite whales like Onyx that have latched onto a new mother figure after losing their own. It just goes to show, as with any biological observations, its dangerous to make assumptions.

Onyx's story has been enough to make us question some of our fundamental beliefs about how resident killer whale societies work. It's amazing to me how many questions get raised by the movements of a single whale.


Vera said...

Wow - that's food for thought isn't it?

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

That's the beauty of the natural world - no matter how much we learn there are always more questions than answers - we can never know it all - fascinating stuff



Warren Baker said...

Do pods breed with other pods, or do the Orcas only breed among their own pod Monika.

Monika said...

Vera - It sure is!

Dave - You're spot on!

Warren - In general, killer whale populations breed outside their pod and within their own population, but not with "outside" killer whales. For instance for the three fish-eating resident pods known as the Southern Residents, they will breed with other Southern Residents, but not with marine mammal feeding transients orcas or with other resident killer whale populations. There are cultural differences between killer whale pops and they stick to them pretty strictly.

Until this summer, it was actually believed that the Southern Residents would only mate OUTSIDE their own pod since within their pod are closer relations and family members. Some genetic research released this summer indicates that this may not be the case, and that for this population anyway, they mate both within their own pod and between pods. This might be something they have to do since their population size is relatively small at just +/- 85 whales in their whole population.

Ida Eriksson said...

I just adopted this boy! Very nice to read his story :) thank you!

Monika said...

Korpoga - Thanks for your comment! Onyx is a very interesting whale, changing many of our assumptions about resident orca society. You picked a special one to adopt!

Anij said...

Maybe Onyx’s daddy was related to Georgia. Like maybe his daddy was her son and she’s his granny.