The world’s oldest known killer whale, or orca, has been missing from her pod for months and is presumed dead. The whale, who is formally identified as J2 but is affectionately nicknamed Granny, has not been seen since October 12, 2016, according to a post by Dr. Ken Balcomb on the Center for Whale Research’s website. Balcomb and other cetologists at the Center have been studying Granny’s pod since 1976.
Granny’s pod is known as “J pod” and is part of a larger group of killer whales called the Southern Resident Killer Whales. They’re referred to as the “Southern Resident” whales because they are one of two groups of resident killer whales who remain localized in a specific stretch of the Pacific Northwest, and their group tends to travel the southern half of that stretch.
The Southern Resident Killer Whales travel between Johnstone Straight off of Vancouver, Canada, and Monterrey, California. The Northern Resident Killer Whales travel between Vancouver and the Alaskan coast.
Granny was estimated to have been up to 105-years-old.
“We have now seen J2 thousands of times in the past forty years, and in recent years she has been in the lead of J pod virtually every time that she has been seen by anyone,”Balcomb writes in his post.
“In 1987 we estimated that she was at least 45 years old and was more likely to have been 76 years old (the oldest SRKW at the time, and the presumed mother of J1). And, she kept on going, like the energizer bunny.”
— Daniel Schneider (@BiologistDan) January 3, 2017
Granny has been of particular importance to researchers because of her age and because she had gone through menopause. Killer whales are one of only three species, along with humans and short-finned pilot whales, that are known to experience menopause, according to the BBC.
“Studying female orcas which live long beyond their reproductive years has revealed insights into the menopause,” the BBC noted.
“They guide the pod as it forages, take care of other females’ young calves and even feed the larger males,” the BBC report continues.
“These post-reproductive female leaders help their families to survive, and the advantage they offer could show what drives a species to evolve to stop reproducing.”
The Southern Resident Killer Whales were also part of a vital research project that ran from 1965 to 1975 to determine if the whales in the area were in fact part of a finite local resident group or were simply whales from an “infinite” number of whales periodically coming in from the ocean. At the time, the whales were being captured regularly for sale to marine parks around the world. The Center for Whale Research eventually determined that they were definitely a localized group, which halted the capture and sale of the whales.
Balcomb expressed a glimmer of hope, but ultimately sorrow, regarding Granny’s long absence.
“Perhaps other dedicated whale-watchers have seen her since then, but by year’s end she is officially missing from the SRKW population, and with regret we now consider her deceased,” he wrote.
He also somberly noted the entire population of Southern Resident Killer Whales had declined to 78 as of 31 December 2016, and that Granny’s J pod now consists of only 24 whales.
Diminishing salmon populations in the area have led to scarce food supplies for the whales, which feed on the salmon.
“Who will lead the pod into the future? Is there a future without food? What will the human leaders do?” Balcomb asked at the end of his post.
— Kimberly Ventre (@KimberlyVentre) January 3, 2017
Professor Darren Croft, who leads evolutionary biology research on killer whales at the University of Exeter, told the BBC, “It was inevitable that this day was going to come but it is very sad news and a further blow to this population,” adding that Granny had been “helping her family group to survive by sharing her knowledge of when and where to find food.”
Croft said that because she was the oldest known killer whale, Granny’s life must have been “just incredible” and highlighted how important her life had been to the research of killer whales.
“She lived through the live captures, and in recent years her world has changed dramatically with dwindling salmon stocks and increases in shipping threatening the survival of this incredible population,” he told the BBC, “Although J2 is gone we will continue to benefit for many decades to come, from the incredible data collected on her life over the last 40 years by the Center for Whale Research.”
Being the oldest does have its perks, and Granny will surely be missed by the scientists and dedicated killer whale watchers who came to know her over the years.
[Featured Image by Sea World Australia Handout/Getty Images]