Ecologists say killer whales are eating the otters. NIELSEN: In the current issue of the journal Ecology, Williams and her colleagues show just how big the killer-whale bite out of the otter population is. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record. A new theory suggests a massive decline in seals, sea lions and sea otters in the North Pacific may have been triggered by over-fishing of great whales. NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. NOAA biologist Lisa Ballance, who's married to Pitman, was part of the team. It's gone. "The idea is that, if we can figure that out, we might be able to find some ways that we can further help recover the endangered population, like Southern residents." Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information. He also says the original idea that these orcas once ate the great whales can't be proven. The killer whale (also known as the orca) generally did not consume sea otters in the past, but now consumes thousands of otters. We had type D killer whales swimming around our boat. Then she multiplies five to seven by 170, which is the estimated number of mammal-eating orcas living near the Aleutians. "It's a big ocean, and it's a rough ocean. affected. They are easy to identify because of their distinctive white and black colouring. NIELSEN: But it's not just whale-huggers who hate the orca hypothesis. And a lot of people don't like hearing that. Accuracy and availability may vary. That's the New Zealand killer whale!' They are the largest dolphins. Still others are investigating what to do about killer whales feeding on sea otters in Alaska. Killer whales, just like their dolphin cousins, communicate through underwater sounds with one another. Different populations of killer whales make different vocalizations, and different pods within these populations may even have their own dialect. This is due to the fact that killer whales are used to eating animals two to five times the size of otters, so they need to eat two to five times as many otters as seals or sea lions. People raised on movies like "Free Willy" tend to think of killer whales as well-meaning, fence-jumping giants who want nothing more than to live in perfect harmony with all the other creatures in the ocean. They use these sounds to help travel underwater. He says the authors of the orca paper greatly overestimate the number of sea otters being eaten by the killer whales, partly because he's sure these killer whales are also eating lots of other things, like fish. Ms. WILLIAMS: And you end up with a whopping 300,000 sea otters in a single year potentially eaten by these animals. SCIENCE. There are fewer fish available for them to eat, more noise in the water affecting their ability to find the fish, and more pollution in the water that impacts their health when they are not well fed. Scientists are finding the same trend around the world. . The team had lowered an underwater microphone over the side on a long cable, with cameras attached. Copyright © 2005 NPR. The mouth comes up, takes the sea otter, grabs it and gulps it down. Scientists found extremely high PCB levels in the animals’ bodies. When the big whales got hard to find, Williams says, the orcas switched to big, stellar sea lions and then to medium-sized seals. Pitman adds: "It's like seeing a dinosaur or something. Before reading: Describe a sea otter. Although the population size and status of killer whales in the Aleutian Islands are unknown, these animals are commonly seen. K Pod K pod is the smallest of the three pods in the Southern Resident killer whale community with only 17 members. Scientists recently found that as many as half of the world’s killer whale populations may not survive the next 100 years because of PCB pollution. Orcas were eating otters because the really big whales they used to eat were nearly wiped out by commercial whalers back in the 1950s. A group of ecologists says it has solved the mystery of Alaska's missing sea otters. Many people are trying to figure out why. Scientists say they've found a mysterious type of killer whale that they've been searching for for years. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. But Jim Hasties, a federal biologist and a major proponent of the orca theory, says there is one solution that almost everyone can agree on: continuing efforts to rebuild the region's stocks of great whales. Since 1990, otter populations off the Aleutian Islands have fallen by as much as 80 percent. Each pod has distinctive noises, so whales in one pod can sense if another whale is part of its group. 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