J50 and her mother J16 both appear to have a parasite
Scarlett the southern resident orca is still sick, but researchers aren’t giving up on her.
Also known as J50, Scarlett is the youngest calf in the southern resident pod. Recently, however, scientists have observed “peanut head,” a condition that indicates that an orca isn’t getting enough nutrients.
Since then researchers diagnosed her earlier this summer with a parasite, and hoped to give her a couple doses of medication to improve her condition.
On Saturday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an update that though Scarlett had caught up to her pod on Friday, she continued to lag behind her family group at times. Additionally, her body condition did not seem to be improving and researchers do not believe they succeeded in providing a double dose of dewormer.
“She appeared to have lost more weight and looked very thin,” NOAA’s update said. “Our highest priorities are to do all we can to ensure J50 remains a contributing part of the southern resident killer whale population and to prevent any harm to her and her family under any potential response scenario. That is the bottom line.”
Studying J50’s recovery hasn’t been the easiest process. Given that she’s a wild orca, researchers can’t just run tests on what is wrong with her; instead researchers collect fecal samples that narrow down the possible orcas to just a few.
There’s also the potential that it’s not the only thing wrong with her, or her pod.
“We don’t think that parasites are the main problem that Scarlet’s experiencing right now,” wildlife veterinarian Dr. Joe Gaydos told KIRO Radio. “Parasitism is not why she’s thin and struggling right now. But it is one more burden and if we can remove that burden by giving her an anti-parasite medication, then that’s going to help a lot.”
“Without a diagnosis, it’s really hard to form a treatment plan. Now we’re asking, ‘What are the things that we think we can do without having a definitive diagnosis?'”
They also cannot simply provide food for the struggling orca population. Beyond using feeding trials to provide vitamins or medication, researchers can’t risk disturbing the pod or the ecosystem by making her dependent on food.
Historically speaking, there is no direct precedent for caring for J50 the way researchers have been. Scarlett remains emaciated, but is still with her family, meaning researchers could do more harm than good if they separate her for treatment.
On August 17, NOAA collected fecal samples and (using genetic testing) managed to determine that the sample is likely from J50’s mother, J16.
“This sample showed evidence of parasitic worms,” NOAA tweeted out. “Since J16 catches fish that she then shares with J50, the veterinary team prioritized treating J50 with a dewormer, following antibiotics.”
That may sound like overkill for one orca calf, but J50 — or Scarlet — isn’t just the baby of the pack. The 3 1/2 year old is the youngest member of the orcas, and the last known baby to survive infancy in a population that recently dwindled to a 30-year low.
The southern resident whales drew increased attention following J35’s 1,000-mile swim with the body of her dead calf, who died hours after being born. Since then, all eyes have been on the orcas, and Gov. Jay Inslee has re-upped his effort to reduce environmental and noise pollution, among other habitat dangers.