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December 8, 2014 at 10:45 AM

Dead Puget Sound orca was pregnant with full-term fetus

The Associated Press

COURTENAY, B.C. — The necropsy on the endangered orca found dead off Vancouver Island showed it was pregnant with a full-term fetus, and that someone removed several teeth from the dead killer whale before it could be examined.

Experts had speculated the death may have arisen from birth complications. Biologists have yet to determine the cause of death.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans also said someone removed several teeth.

“It looks like they broke off a couple, and there were a number that were sawed off, and those were cut off right to the gum,” said Paul Cottrell, the agency’s Pacific marine mammals coordinator.

It’s illegal to possess part of an endangered animal.

“It’s just a senseless, illegal act,” Cottrell said. “We take this kind of thing seriously. We don’t want endangered species parts being traded or sold.”

The orca known as J-32 was found floating in the water Thursday near Courtenay. It was moved to a boat launch Friday for the necropsy, which took place Saturday.

The death leaves 77 animals in the Puget Sound orca population, which was listed as endangered in 2005.

“The fetus was decomposing,” said Ken Balcomb, a scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, assisted in the necropsy. “The tests will be able to tell whether the fetus was already dead before the mother died, and therefore may have been the cause of her death.”

Tissue samples from the orca and the fetus will be examined at a number of labs across North America, Cottrell said. Results are expected in four to six weeks.

“Hopefully there will be enough evidence in tissue and fetus to understand what’s going wrong,” Balcomb said.

He said he does not think it’s a natural birthing issue because “we know that the levels of toxins that are in these whales are harmful to reproductive status.”

There hasn’t been a successful birth in the population for 2 ½ years, Balcomb said.

The orca looked healthy but its blubber level was thinner than usual, indicating that it had poor nutrition for some time, Balcomb said.

“What we do know is that if we could provide a food supply that’s abundant and healthy, they wouldn’t have to rely on their blubber storage for energy,” he said.

Comments | More in Environment, General news | Topics: Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Center for Whale Research, dead orca

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