It is unfortunate that our first announcement of 2017 has to be about the death of J2, known to most as Granny, the oldest southern resident. At an estimated 105 years of age, we knew that the day was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept. Especially since all we seem to do lately is announce whale deaths. As we have expressed in past blog posts, not all losses are felt equally. Despite her age, the loss of J2 is particularly hard to take. Many of us feel that it is the end of an era, as the number of whales alive at the beginning of the study has shrunk down to less than a handful. J2 is arguably the most famous of all the southern residents, not just because of her age but also because of her position. She expertly played the role of a matriarch, almost always traveling well in front of the rest of J pod, frequently alone, and seemingly in the lead.
J2 (shown left in 1976) was estimated to have been born in 1911. The question of how her birth year does not have a simple answer and is based on several assumptions. The first assumption was that J1 (Ruffles), now deceased, was J2’s adult son. Because of their body and fin size, both J2 and J1 were assumed to be full grown when first photographed by Mike Bigg in 1971. For J1 this meant that he was estimated to have been born in 1951, making him 20 years old (age at sexual maturity in males) at the time. Another assumption was that J1 was J2’s last calf, based on the observations that she did not knowingly give birth to any other offspring. This led to the next assumption that she was post reproductive at the time the study began, putting her age estimate at 40 years old, the age at which the average female orca enters menopause. So, if J2 was 40 when she had J1 in 1951, that would make her birth year 1911 (1951-40 years). Clearly, the estimated age of J2 will change if any of these assumptions are untrue. The most likely point of error is that J1 is not the offspring of J2. Genetic testing suggests that is most likely the case. The mother/son relationship was assumed based on association, which we know now is not always an indication of a family relationship. L87 is a perfect example of this. After his mother died in 2005 he has attached himself to several older females that he is not related to, J2 being the most recent.
J2 with J1 in 2009. J1 died in 2010 at the estimated age of 57, the oldest male orca known to date.
All assumptions aside, J2 was undoubtably a very old whale. If we suppose that she was J1’s sister for example, her size at the initiation of the Orca Survey study puts her most conservative birth date around 1942, making her 74 this year: 30 plus years over the average, and still the oldest southern resident we know.
Speaking of size, J2 was a fairly large whale. According to John Durban (NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center) who has been conducting photogrammetry studies on the Southern Residents for over a decade now, “J2 was about 6.4m long, or 21ft. This is a bit above average for adult females (typically about 6m), but she probably matured in a period with higher food availability resulting in greater adult size” (John Durban & Holly Fearnbach, unpublished photogrammetry data). She was measured as recently as September of this year, and John reported that she looked thin. A report on her condition can be found here on the NOAA website.
The recent studies we have participated in on menopause and the unusual post-reproductive life span of female killer whales show how important individuals like J2 are to the rest of the group.
In general, females are most likely to be in the lead, and post-reproductive females are more often leading than reproductive age females. This is especially true in times of food scarcity, when the studies show that the post-reproductive females play a prominent role in leading group movement. It makes sense, the older the individual the more knowledge they have about where to find the fish. Not only are older females important as leaders, they also play a crucial role in the survival of their adult sons. Sons who lose their mothers are three times as likely to die as well. This suggests that the knowledge and support of older females are driving factors in the adaptation toward long lifespans. Female orcas have evolved to live well beyond their reproductive age because it is beneficial to the rest of the pod, something that is rare in nature.
This graphic shows the J pods social network in 1996. As you can see J2 is close to the center of the network, showing her importance to social cohesion in the pod.
Now that the leader of J pod is gone, who will step into her shoes? J2 was the last individual in J pod to be born before the study began. J16, now the oldest, is estimated to be 44. We have speculated that the absence of older females may contribute to the loss of cohesion within the pods. Anyone who is watching the whales has likely observed the fragmentation of all three pods over the years, where groups that once traveled consistently and predictably together no longer do so. We have attributed this change in behavior to lack of food availability- the whales have to spread out to look for salmon that are scarce- but perhaps a loss of older female leadership is also having an impact.
As for J2 as an individual, she will be missed. Many saw her as a symbol of the matriarchy that defines the social structure of killer whales. Many also identified with her “great grandmother” status, even though we don’t really know exactly who her offspring were. She had a “grandmother vibe” I heard a whale watcher once say, and I'd have to agree. To me she represents an era when the whales were more of a mystery. She was born in a time when we knew very little about the lives of killer whales. A time when we considered them as pests. J2 has lived through the spectrum of human attitudes towards orcas. Going from target practice, to commodity, to entertainer and now something to be admired and saved. I wish I could conjure a special memory of her, but nothing is coming to mind. In the last several years she has always seemed to be at an increasing distance from the group. She was frequently the last one we could check off the list of who we had seen on a given day. While out on an encounter, we would say to each other: “Have we seen J2 yet? She must be up ahead”, and the day would end once we found her.
We have literally seen and photographed J2 thousands and thousands of times. Our colleague, Prof Darren Croft, University of Exeter, UK puts it into perspective saying: "J2 is gone but we will benefit for many decades to come from the incredible data collected on her life over the last four decades by the Center for Whale Research".
This graph (created by Jane Cogan) shows the trends in the population over the last 40 plus years. Overall there has been virtually no growth.
Even after the surge of births in 2015, we are almost back to where we started at the end of 2014. There were 77 southern residents at the end of 2014 and as of now there are 78. The eight calves born during the SRKW baby boom, only resulted in the net gain of one individual. If you haven’t seen the article we wrote about the state of the population for Crosscut magazine that came out this week, you can read it here. Basically we describe how 2016 was a rough year for the residents, particularly for J pod. In addition to J2, six more whales were lost: J55, L95, J14, J28, J54, and J34. There were also three neonate deaths, calves who were never seen alive and therefore not given alphanumeric designations.
As sad as it sounds, loosing J2 was inevitable, and expected. It’s the loss of younger, breeding age individuals like J28 and J34 that is more alarming and cause for worry. The actual number we should be concerned about is 30, which is the approximate number of breeding age animals in the population. Those are the individuals who carry the responsibility for the future of southern resident population.
Links to sources can be found on our Research page:
• Brent et al., 2015. Ecological Knowledge, Leadership, and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales. Current Biology 25, 1–5
• Darren P. Croft, Lauren J.N. Brent, Daniel W. Franks, and Michael A. Cant The evolution of prolonged life after reproduction. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Vol 30, No 7
• Foster, Emma A., Daniel W. Franks, Sonia Mazzi, Safi K. Darden, Ken C. Balcomb, John K. B. Ford, Darren P. Croft Adaptive Prolonged Postreproductive Life Span in Killer Whales. Science Vol 337
• Fearnbach, Holly, John W. Durban, Dave K. Ellifrit, and Ken C. Balcomb III. 2011. Size and long-term growth trends of Endangered fish-eating killer whales. Endangered Species Research 13(3):173-180.
• Foster, Emma A. 2011. Social network correlates of food availability in an endangered population of killer whales, Orcinus orca. Animal Behviour 83 731-736.