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Orcas rely only on one breath between dives to conserve energy

Orcas, also known as killer whales, have long captivated marine enthusiasts with their striking black and white patterns and awe-inspiring intelligence. Now, a study has unveiled another fascinating aspect of their underwater prowess: orcas take only a single breath between dives.

Imagine sprinting to the grocery store, doing your shopping, and returning home before taking another breath – that’s the orca way.

Mystery of orca breath

To unlock the secrets of orca respiration, researchers from the University of British Columbia embarked on a high-tech adventure. They deployed drones and attached suction-cupped tags to 11 northern and southern resident killer whales off the coast of British Columbia. This ingenious combination of technology allowed them to gather valuable data on the whales’ diving habits and oxygen consumption.

The study’s findings were truly astounding. Resident orcas, as they are known, prefer shallow dives, with most lasting less than a minute. However, one particularly adventurous adult male orca shattered expectations with an 8.5-minute dive, showcasing the species’ remarkable adaptability.

The researchers used advanced technology to study orca respiration. They employed drones and suction-cupped tags to monitor 11 northern and southern resident killer whales near British Columbia’s coast. This innovative approach provided detailed data on the whales’ diving behavior and oxygen use.

The study revealed surprising results. Resident orcas mostly engage in shallow dives, typically under a minute. Nonetheless, one adult male demonstrated the species’ adaptability by diving for 8.5 minutes, a significant deviation from the usual pattern.

It’s a sprint, not a marathon

“Killer whales are like sprinters who don’t have the marathon endurance of blue and humpback whales to make deep and prolonged dives,” explained Dr. Andrew Trites, a co-author of the study and professor in the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries (IOF).

This revelation sheds light on the orcas’ unique hunting strategies, favoring quick bursts of energy rather than prolonged underwater pursuits. Instead of relying on long, deep dives, orcas use brief, shallow dives to catch their prey. This method allows them to conserve energy and maximize their hunting efficiency.

A breath of fresh air for orca conservation

The discovery that orcas take only one breath between dives has significant implications for conservation efforts. By understanding how much oxygen these majestic creatures consume, scientists can estimate their energy expenditure and determine how much fish they need to eat each day.

This information is crucial for ensuring the survival of endangered southern resident orcas, who face challenges due to declining fish populations.

Knowing the orcas’ oxygen consumption helps scientists calculate their daily energy needs. With this data, researchers can assess whether the current fish population is sufficient to support the orcas.

Effective conservation strategies can be developed based on these findings, aimed at protecting fish populations and ensuring orcas have enough food to survive and thrive.

“Researchers can then work out if the orcas are getting enough food, including the endangered southern residents, a key factor in their conservation,” emphasized Tess McRae, the study’s lead author and an IOF master’s student.

Orca lungs efficiency

Compared to humans, orcas are breathing champions. While resting, they take a leisurely 1.2 to 1.3 breaths per minute. This rate increases slightly to 1.5 to 1.8 breaths per minute when they are traveling or hunting.

In stark contrast, humans typically take about 15 breaths per minute at rest and a whopping 40 to 60 breaths per minute during exercise.

“It’s the equivalent of holding your breath and running to the grocery store, shopping, and coming back before breathing again,” said co-author Dr. Beth Volpov, IOF postdoctoral fellow. 

The future of orca research

The findings of this study open up exciting new avenues for orca research. By understanding their breathing patterns and energy needs, scientists can gain valuable insights into their behavior, health, and ecological role. This knowledge will be instrumental in developing effective conservation strategies to protect these iconic marine mammals for generations to come.

The study’s confirmation that orcas take just one breath between dives has revolutionized our understanding of these magnificent creatures. It highlights their remarkable adaptability, efficient respiratory system, and unique hunting strategies.

As we continue to explore the mysteries of the deep, the orcas’ breathtaking abilities serve as a constant reminder of the wonders of the natural world.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.


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