Quantifying the effects of prey abundance on killer whale reproduction


*Correspondence author. E-mail: Eric.Ward@noaa.gov


  • 1Management decisions for threatened and endangered species require risks to be identified and prioritized, based on the degree to which they influence population dynamics. The potential for recovery of small populations at risk may be determined by multiple factors, including intrinsic population characteristics (inbreeding, sex ratios) and extrinsic variables (prey availability, disease, human disturbance). Using Bayesian statistical methods, the impact of each of these risk factors on demographic rates can be quantified and assigned probabilities to express uncertainty.
  • 2We assessed the impact of a wide range of factors on the fecundity of two threatened populations of killer whales Orcinus orca, specifically whether killer whale production is limited by availability of Chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha. Additional variables included anthropogenic factors, climate variables, temporal effects, and population variables (population size, number of males, female age).
  • 3Our results indicate that killer whale fecundity is highly correlated with the abundance of Chinook salmon. For example, the probability of a female calving differed by 50% between years of low salmon abundance and high salmon abundance. Weak evidence exists for linking fecundity to other variables, such as sea surface temperature.
  • 4There was strong data support for reproductive senescence in female killer whales. This pattern of rapid maturity and gradual decline of fecundity with age commonly seen in terrestrial mammals has been documented in few marine mammal species. Maximum production for this species occurs between ages 20–22, and reproductive performance declines gradually to menopause over a period of 25 years.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. Our results provide strong evidence for reproductive senescence in killer whales, and more importantly, that killer whale fecundity is strongly tied to the abundance of Chinook salmon, a species that is susceptible to environmental variation and has high commercial value to fisheries. This strong predator–prey relationship highlights the importance of understanding which salmon populations overlap with killer whales seasonally and spatially, so that those salmon populations important as prey for killer whales can be identified and targeted for conservation efforts.