To dig deeper into the ancient past of B.C.’s killer whales, scientist are studying whale DNA. This molecule holds genetic information and can be used to determine the family relationships of killer whales.

Looking for whales

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard is the Aquarium’s cetacean scientist. Every year, he and his fellow researcher Craig Matkin (who works with the North Gulf Oceanic Society) search parts of the Alaskan coast for killer whales. He also makes similar trips in B.C., often with Fisheries and Oceans researchers Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis. When Lance and his colleagues find whales, they take identification photos and use a hydrophone to make underwater recordings. They also collect samples of DNA from some of the killer whales they find.

To collect DNA samples, the researchers use pencil-sized, ultra-light darts that they fire with a tranquilizer rifle. Most killer whales don’t seem to notice the dart, which simply bounces off their backs, taking a tiny bit of skin and blubber with it. Once the whale has moved aw Read More
To dig deeper into the ancient past of B.C.’s killer whales, scientist are studying whale DNA. This molecule holds genetic information and can be used to determine the family relationships of killer whales.

Looking for whales

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard is the Aquarium’s cetacean scientist. Every year, he and his fellow researcher Craig Matkin (who works with the North Gulf Oceanic Society) search parts of the Alaskan coast for killer whales. He also makes similar trips in B.C., often with Fisheries and Oceans researchers Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis. When Lance and his colleagues find whales, they take identification photos and use a hydrophone to make underwater recordings. They also collect samples of DNA from some of the killer whales they find.

To collect DNA samples, the researchers use pencil-sized, ultra-light darts that they fire with a tranquilizer rifle. Most killer whales don’t seem to notice the dart, which simply bounces off their backs, taking a tiny bit of skin and blubber with it. Once the whale has moved away, the floating dart is retrieved and its precious contents stored for later analysis.

Getting answers

Lance's DNA studies have confirmed the suspicions of earlier researchers: transients and residents do not mate with each other and pods that speak the same dialect were once in the same family.

Lance, John, Craig and Graeme are now completing the family tree of resident killer whales. Lance is also comparing the genes of residents, transients, offshores and killer whales from other parts of the world to learn how long they've been separated. It's possible that he and other scientists will find out that there are actually more than one killer whale species.

Want to learn more about research in BC? Check out the Wild Whales website!

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

DNA analysis gel

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard working in his genetics lab

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Using DNA tests, scientist can now find out sho the fathers of killer whale calves are - a task that was once impossible.
Using DNA tests, scientist can now find out sho the fathers of killer whale calves are - a task that was once impossible.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

You can find out a lot about a killer whale if you know what to look for. A killer whale’s dorsal fin and saddle patch (the area under the dorsal fin) are as distinct as a face or a fingerprint. Once scientists have a whale on file, they can keep track of where it hangs out and who it spends time with. That’s how they first discovered the amazingly complex culture of resident killer whales.

Dorsal fins

Every nick and scar on a killer whale's dorsal fin tells a different story. Stubbs, who was the first killer whale to be ever identified from her dorsal fin, was very distinctive. The top half of her dorsal fin was severed, probably from an undersea accident. Winchester, another killer whale, has a more subtle injury: someone probably shot at her, and now she has a small hole in her dorsal fin.

Saddle patches

The shape and pattern of a saddle patch and the scars on it can be used to tell different killer whales apart from one another. For example, Nolades and Rave Read More
You can find out a lot about a killer whale if you know what to look for. A killer whale’s dorsal fin and saddle patch (the area under the dorsal fin) are as distinct as a face or a fingerprint. Once scientists have a whale on file, they can keep track of where it hangs out and who it spends time with. That’s how they first discovered the amazingly complex culture of resident killer whales.

Dorsal fins

Every nick and scar on a killer whale's dorsal fin tells a different story. Stubbs, who was the first killer whale to be ever identified from her dorsal fin, was very distinctive. The top half of her dorsal fin was severed, probably from an undersea accident. Winchester, another killer whale, has a more subtle injury: someone probably shot at her, and now she has a small hole in her dorsal fin.

Saddle patches

The shape and pattern of a saddle patch and the scars on it can be used to tell different killer whales apart from one another. For example, Nolades and Raven both have teeth rake marks on their saddle patches from other killer whales, but Nolades has a larger and whiter saddle patch than Raven.

Killer whale mugshots

Together, the dorsal fin and saddle patch can be used to make up a mugshot to identify individual killer whales. Since this amazing discovery by pioneering researcher Dr. Michael Bigg, marine scientists have photographed every resident killer whale in British Columbia. Transients and offshores are hard to photograph because they’re harder to find, but scientists are slowly building a photo album with the ones that do get photographed.

Identifying killer whales

Would you be able to tell one killer whale from another in the wild? Test your skills with our Killer Whale Identification game!

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

A killer whale identification photo with distinctive nicks in the dorsal fin

Photo : Pacific Biological Station

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Killer whale calves can be hard to identify, Luckily, researchers can track them by identifying their mothers, who are usually close by.
Killer whale calves can be hard to identify, Luckily, researchers can track them by identifying their mothers, who are usually close by.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

A lone male killer whale with a large, rippled dorsal fin swims by a glacier

Photo : L. Barrett-Lennard

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Would you be able to tell one killer whale from another in the wild? Test your skills with our Killer Whale Identification game!

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • familiarize himself with the vocabulary used in biology;
  • assess human impacts on biodiversity, and identify ways of preserving biodiversity;
  • describe how personal actions help conserve natural resources and protect the environment in their region;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the dynamic nature of ecosystems.

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