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NOAA Researchers Look To Parasite As Cause For Orca Health Problems

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A 3-year-old malnourished killer whale spotted swimming off the West Coast has been suffering from a parasite, scientists have discovered.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries reported that J50, also known as Scarlet, has moderate levels of parasite known as Contracaecum, a nematode commonly found in marine mammals.

Diagnosing J50

The orca has been the subject of a cross-border mission involving biologists from the United States and Canada after it showed signs of malnutrition and lethargy. Photos taken of the endangered animal showed that it lost 20 percent of its body weight. Scientists who observed the orca feared that it might not survive without intervention.

Last weekend, scientists were able to collect fecal samples from members of the whale's pod, including J50's, and submitted them to top laboratories across the country. The samples contained the parasite that has been causing the killer whale's health to decline.

"The worm is not usually a problem in healthy animals," NOAA tweeted on Saturday, Aug. 18. "But for animals that are emaciated or otherwise compromised, the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or it can bore into internal organs."

While NOAA cannot say exactly whether the fecal sample collected last weekend was from J50, the organization will make an effort to kill the parasite and, hopefully, heal the killer whale. A team of veterinarians will include dewormer and antibiotic in its treatment priorities. This has been proven safe and effective when used in other cases.

J50 and her whale pod are currently swimming off the west side of Vancouver Island. Responders previously attempted to feed the orca by releasing live fish and administer antibiotics through a dart.

Killer Whale Mom Grieves For Dead Calf

The case of J50 is being monitored after another killer whale in its pod, J35, made headlines for seemingly showing grief following the death of its calf.

Last month, scientists started observing J35, an adult female orca named Tahlequah, which gave birth to a female calf on July 24. The calf, however, died a mere half an hour after its birth.

J35 was seen balancing the body of her dead calf on her nose for over two weeks and scientists were concerned that the orca might be putting herself at risk. The grieving mother finally dropped her dead calf after 1,000 miles on Aug. 11.

"Grief and love are not human qualities. They're things we share with some other animals," said Barbara King, a professor emeritus at the College of William and Mary, to CBC.

She added that there was evidence that whales like J35 and dolphins mark the passing of one of their own by surrounding the dead or keeping them afloat. Chimpanzees and elephants also show signs of mourning for their dead.

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