The killer whales that summer in Puget Sound have been breeding within their own family groups, raising concerns among scientists that the region's troubled orca population actually may be more fragile than once thought.
While the endangered southern resident orcas in J, K and L pods avoid mating with siblings or offspring, a significant number of young whales in recent years have been born to parents that are members of the same pod, according to a new study by several of the Northwest's top orca scientists.
That trend surprises and worries researchers who say it could significantly reduce the population's genetic diversity, making whales more susceptible to disease and genetic disorders or mutations. Such "genetic bottlenecks" can also reduce the ability to withstand environmental upheaval, such as toxic pollution or climate change.
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