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Killer Whale Research

The Vancouver Aquarium’s first permanent marine mammal scientist was Dr. John Ford. Starting the late 1980’s,  John conducted ground-breaking research on the acoustic behaviour of killer whales.  His findings helped confirm a remarkable discovery his PhD supervisor, Dr. Michael Bigg had made:  two fundamentally different types of killer whales share the coastal waters of British Columbia—residents and transients. (More recently, we’ve learned that a third type of killer whale—offshores-- frequents the outer part of our continental shelf).  John left the Aquarium in 2001 to lead Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s marine mammal research program in the Pacific region. His former student Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard took over as the Aquarium’s senior marine mammal research scientist. Lance’s inherited a background in acoustic research from John, but his main expertise is in  ecology, population genetics, and conservation biology.

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Researchers in the Field

Killer Whale Research

Transients Versus Residents

Resident killer whales are typically encountered in groups of 10 to 25 or more. They're highly vocal, feed on fish and exhibit regular seasonal patterns of habitat use. In contrast, transient killer whales are silent predators of marine mammals: hunting seals, sea lions and even other cetaceans. They travel in groups of two to five whales and exhibit more erratic movements.

Killer Whale Vocalizations

Dr. John Ford, the Aquarium’s first marine mammal research scientist, did the first systematic research on killer whale vocalizations. His research showed that each resident pod uses a unique dialect, or set of calls. Pods from different clans share no calls at all, even though they may live in the same general area and intermingle freely.

Killer Whale Breaching Credit: Lance Barrett-Lennard
Killer Whale Credit: Lance Barrett-Lennard

Evolution in Progress?

Research by our own Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard has established that resident and transient killer whales are genetically distinct groups that have rarely if ever interbred for thousands of years. Furthermore, each is made up of populations that, although closely related, have small genetic differences indicating that they rarely interbreed as well. If maintained long enough, this pattern could eventually result in the evolution of a number of new killer whale species. Indeed, some scientists think that that residents and transients are already different enough to be considered separate species.

Preventing Inbreeding

Dr. Barrett-Lennard's research has shown that not only do residents mate outside their pods, they usually mate outside their acoustic clans. Because vocal similarity and genetic relatedness are strongly linked, this mating pattern is a very effective way of preventing inbreeding. This behaviour may in turn explain why killer whales are able to persist in such small populations.

Killer Whale Credit: Lance Barrett-Lennard
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