back to killer whale home page rockfish sea lions
Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard working in his genetics lab
get involved killer whale country b.c. cetacean sightings network
threats killer culture sounds all around familiar fins

To dig deeper into the ancient past of B.C.’s killer whales, scientist are studying whale DNA. This molecule holds genetic information and can be used to determine the family relationships of killer whales.


  Using DNA tests, scientists can now find out who the fathers of killer whale calves are - a task that was once impossible. DNA analysis gel

Looking for whales
Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard is the Aquarium’s cetacean scientist. Every year, he and his fellow researcher Craig Matkin (who works with the North Gulf Oceanic Society) search parts of the Alaskan coast for killer whales. He also makes similar trips in B.C., often with Fisheries and Oceans researchers Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis. When Lance and his colleagues find whales, they take identification photos and use a hydrophone to make underwater recordings. They also collect samples of DNA from some of the killer whales they find.

To collect DNA samples, the researchers use pencil-sized, ultra-light darts that they fire with a tranquilizer rifle. Most killer whales don’t seem to notice the dart, which simply bounces off their backs, taking a tiny bit of skin and blubber with it. Once the whale has moved away, the floating dart is retrieved and its precious contents stored for later analysis.


Getting answers
Lance's DNA studies have confirmed the suspicions of earlier researchers: transients and residents do not mate with each other and pods that speak the same dialect were once in the same family.

Lance, John, Craig and Graeme are now completing the family tree of resident killer whales. Lance is also comparing the genes of residents, transients, offshores and killer whales from other parts of the world to learn how long they've been separated. It's possible that he and other scientists will find out that there are actually more than one killer whale species.

Want to learn more about research in BC?  Check out the Wild Whales website!

Visit the Vancouver Aquarium See more of the Virtual Museum of Canada