Why Are Killer Whales Harassing and Killing Porpoises Without Eating Them?
Scientists Investigate a Perplexing Behavior
For decades, fish-eating killer whales in the Pacific Northwest have been observed harassing and even killing porpoises without consuming them — a perplexing behavior that has long intrigued scientists.
A study published today in Marine Mammal Science, co-led by Deborah Giles of Wild Orca and Sarah Teman of the SeaDoc Society, a program of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, looked at more than 60 years of recorded interactions between Southern Resident killer whales and porpoises in the Salish Sea to better understand why they exhibit this behavior.
Southern Resident killer whales are an endangered population, numbering only 75 individuals. Their survival is intimately tied to the fortunes of chinook salmon — also an endangered species. Without enough chinook salmon, these whales are in danger of extinction.
“I am frequently asked, why don’t the Southern Residents just eat seals or porpoises instead?” said Giles. “It's because fish-eating killer whales have a completely different ecology and culture from orcas that eat marine mammals — even though the two populations live in the same waters. So we must conclude that their interactions with porpoises serve a different purpose, but this purpose has only been speculation until now.”