When you mention killer whales, the image of one ambushing a terrified seal often springs to mind. But there are populations of killer whales who live exclusively on fish. And not on just any fish: they are very specialised in which fish they will eat.

According to research published in Biology Letters, two populations studied in the northeastern Pacific Ocean prefer to eat Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). So much so that if the numbers of Chinook salmon drop this directly affects the numbers of killer whales. The whales seem unable to adopt a new food, become weak and have a higher mortality.

The authors conclude that other killer whale populations may be similarly constrained to one or two prey species, because the young whales will have learnt their fishing strategies from the rest of the group. They too will be limited in their ability to switch to new food if necessary.

Journal Reference:
John K. B. Ford, Graeme M. Ellis, Peter F. Olesiuk, and Kenneth C. Balcomb
Linking killer whale survival and prey abundance: food limitation in the oceans’ apex predator?
Biol Lett 2009 : rsbl.2009.0468v1-rsbl20090468.

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