Researchers studying the pods of killer whales that arrive each spring in Washington's Puget Sound want a new tool for their scientific arsenal: electronic health records.
The marine mammals are already tagged and tracked, photographed and measured by researchers, who follow by drone and by sea, analyzing their waste and exhaled breath.
EHRs would take existing research on the creatures and gather it in one place. The records could then be used to monitor the orcas' health trends individually and as a population. The idea is similar to patients retaining one medical record as they move from one doctor to the next or between specialists.
Eighty-four orcas typically appear in Puget Sound from spring to fall.
“The goal is to really start getting a lot of data and pull them together in a way that permits easier analysis,” said Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California at Davis. “Ultimately, the real benefit of any health record is to help make (management) decisions.”
For example, if an orca appears emaciated or in bad shape during certain times of the year, wildlife managers can access the animal's health history to see what's going on, and what they could do about it, he said.
More than two dozen wildlife experts met in Seattle recently to develop plans for the orcas' health records. The meeting was sponsored by the SeaDoc Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries and the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
Many details are still being worked out, including who will maintain the data and how researchers will gain access. But an initial database could be launched this summer using readily available information, such as sex, age and gender, Gaydos said. Other data would be added next year.
Each Puget Sound orca can be identified by its unique black and white markings or variations in fin shapes, and each whale is given a number and a name. The Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Wash., keeps the federal government's annual census on the population.