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Orcas Spew An Array Of Bacteria When They Exhale, And Human Waste May Be To Blame

25 March 2017, 11:17 pm EDT By Katrina Pascual Tech Times
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What the orcas' breath samples revealed: both good and disease-causing microbes, some of which were antibiotic-resistant and likely come from human waste entering the ecosystem.   ( NOAA )

Orcas or killer whales breathe out good bacteria, salmonella, and fungi, a new study has found.

Data that may shed light on the role of infectious diseases in the endangered Puget Sound orca population also suggested that human waste could be contaminating its marine environment and causing the "bad breath."

Breathing Out A Range Of Bacteria

In their analysis over a four-year period, researchers followed whales swimming in Washington state waters, waiting for them to surface and then exhale. While on boats, they would swing a 25-foot-long pole with different petri dishes above the whales’ blowholes, capturing droplets spraying out.

What the breath samples revealed: both good and disease-causing microbes, some of which were antibiotic-resistant and likely come from human waste entering the ecosystem. Worrisome bacteria, including salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus, were seen in both the whales’ breath samples and seawater samples collected for comparison.

"They're recruiting the bacteria in their habitats," warned lead author and veterinary pathologist Stephen Raverty in a statement.

The marine animals swim through urban waterways as well as encounter a range of human-related stressors such as agricultural runoff and even objects flushed down toilets.

Potential Effects On Orcas

Orcas with weak immunity can, therefore, be more vulnerable to the said bacteria, leading to respiratory conditions. As it is, they already subjected to various stressors that can compromise their immune system.

It remains unclear how harmful the microbes could be to these creatures. Certain bacteria’s presence in the environment could be something normal or could provide a way to make an orca sick once it becomes immune-suppressed, explained Raverty.

Respiratory disease emerged as a factor in the death of whales. Around 40 percent of them had been found to have an infected lung, which was potent enough to lead to death in some cases.

The findings were discussed in the journal Scientific Reports.

Orca Population

Orcas have returned to Puget Sound just in time for the beginning of spring.

Orcas in Puget Sound — located along the northwestern coast of Washington and parts of the Pacific Ocean and the Salish Sea — have fluctuated in numbers in recent times. Facing a lineup of threats including pollution, lack of prey, and noise disturbance from sea vessels, they entered the endangered species list in 2005 and are 78 today.

Scientists are trying to create a personal health record for each endangered whale, tracking and photographing them intensely. The orcas in the area, each with individual names and numbers, are identifiable via black and white markings as well as differences in fin shapes.

Recently, the oldest known orca called J2 Granny was missing and presumed dead. She was estimated to be between the ages of 80 and 105 years. In the last few months, the whale that swam in the seas near Washington State possibly passed away as she had not been seen with the J group.

Just last January, more than 80 false killer whales, which resemble orcas but lack the distinct white oval encircling the eye of their larger relative, were found lifeless after a mass stranding along the Southwest Florida’s remote coast. It was the biggest recorded stranding of such whales in the state was originally believed to be about 100.

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