What do Killer whales eat in the Arctic?

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Scientifically very little is known of the feeding habits of the Arctic Killer whale. To find out more a recent study has branched away from conventional scientific techniques by using traditional Canadian Inuit knowledge instead to establish feeding and behaviour patterns.

The study looks at the diet and behaviour of the Arctic Killer whale - one of a number of different Orca ecotypes around the globe. In each area the whales prefer different types of food and have different diet patterns.

The Canadian team wanted to establish whether the increased hunting territory due to climate change and melting sea ice could result in a knock on effect on the marine ecosystem balance.

The researchers from Manitoba visited 11 Canadian Nunavut Inuit communities and collated information from over 100 interviews with hunters and elders for what is known as 'Traditional Ecological Knowledge' (TEK).

Dr Steven Ferguson from the University of Manitoba who led this research said: "Utilising local knowledge through TEK will help scientists understand the effects of global warming and loss of sea ice on Arctic species and improve collaborative conservation efforts in conjunction with local communities."

The Inuit reported that Killer whales were remarkably unspecialised and would 'eat whatever they can catch', including seals and whales with the reported prey varying depending on the area.

Surprisingly very few even suggested that the whales ate fish and none had ever witnessed it.  

The witnesses also described the ways in which the Killer whales hunted, including several reports of Killer whales co-operating to kill larger Bowhead whales; as well as reports of Orcas holding onto prey’s flippers or tails, covering blowholes and biting or ramming to cause internal damage.

The Inuits also described how prey would hide, run away or seek deep water to escape the Killer whales due to fear of the whales known locally as ‘Aarlirijuk’.

The authors conclude: "By combining TEK and scientific approaches we provide a more holistic view of Killer whale predation in the eastern Canadian Arctic relevant to management and policy. Continuing the long-term relationship between scientists and hunters will provide for successful knowledge integration and has resulted in considerable improvement in understanding of Killer whale ecology relevant to management of prey species. Combining scientists and Inuit knowledge will assist in northerners adapting to the restructuring of the Arctic marine ecosystem associated with warming and loss of sea ice."

For more information see: Prey items and predation behavior of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Nunavut, Canada based on Inuit hunter interviews Steven H Ferguson, Jeff W Higdon and Kristin H Westdal  Aquatic Biosystems 2012 8:3 doi:10.1186/2046-9063-8-3

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