Ford, J.K.B., G. Ellis, L. Barret-Lennard, A.B. Morton, R. Palm and K.C. Balcomb. 1998. Dietary specialization in two sympatric populations of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in coastal British Columbia and adjacent waters. Canadian Journal of Zoology 76(8): 456-1471.
Two forms of killer whale (Orcinus orca), resident and transient, occur sympatrically in coastal waters of British Columbia, Washington State, and southeastern Alaska. The two forms do not mix, and differ in seasonal distribution, social structure, and behaviour. These distinctions have been attributed to apparent differences in diet, although no comprehensive comparative analysis of the diets of the two forms had been undertaken. Here we present such an analysis, based on field observations of predation and on the stomach contents of stranded killer whales collected over a 20-year period. In total, 22 species of fish and 1 species of squid were documented in the diet of resident-type killer whales; 12 of these are previously unrecorded as prey of O. orca. Despite the diversity of fish species taken, resident whales have a clear preference for salmon prey. In field observations of feeding, 96% of fish taken were salmonids. Six species of salmonids were identified from prey fragments, with chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) being the most common. The stomach contents of stranded residents also indicated a preference for chinook salmon. On rare occasions, resident whales were seen to harass marine mammals, but no kills were confirmed and no mammalian remains were found in the stomachs of stranded residents. Transient killer whales were observed to prey only on pinnipeds, cetaceans, and seabirds. Six mammal species were taken, with over half of observed attacks involving harbour seals (Phoca vitulina). Seabirds do not appear to represent a significant prey resource. This study thus reveals the existence of strikingly divergent prey preferences of resident and transient killer whales, which are reflected in distinctive foraging strategies and related sociobiological traits of these sympatric populations.