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Iconic Southern Resident Orca and Father of 21 Is Missing and Feared Dead

Animals
Iconic Southern Resident Orca and Father of 21 Is Missing and Feared Dead
The oldest living male in the southern resident killer whale community, L41, seen above in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is missing and feared dead. MarkMalleson / iStock / Getty Images

Yet another endangered southern resident orca is missing, and researchers fear he is dead.


The whale, known as L41 or Mega, was the largest and oldest of all southern resident orca males. He was a significant member of the embattled group of killer whales who swim between the waters of Washington and Canada. He and another whale fathered most of the orcas born to the group after 1990, The Seattle Times reported. But when researchers encountered his family last Friday, he was not with them.

"He was just a really big personality, and a big whale, and of course he was an important member of his family," Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology and the research director of the nonprofit Wild Orca, told The Seattle Times. "I am going to miss seeing him."

The news of L41's disappearance came when the Center for Whale Research (CWR) reported its second orca encounter of 2020 on Jan. 24.

"Unfortunately, L41 was not present for the entire encounter. Given his age and that he looked a little thin in our January 2019 encounter, we fear he may be gone and will consider him missing unless he shows up unexpectedly in an upcoming encounter," CWR staff member Dave Ellifrit wrote.

Mega was last seen in August 2019 when he was photographed by Mark Malleson.

Mega was born in 1977 and fathered 21 calves. He was also a physically iconic whale, as The Seattle Times described:

He was a classically beautiful orca bull, with a towering dorsal fin, rising straight without a waver from his back. Big and powerful, he was easy to spot and the only adult male left in his immediate family. A nick on the trailing edge of his dorsal made him easily identifiable, along with his massive size, from a long distance.

If he is truly gone, it will bring the number of southern resident killer whales down to 72, the second-lowest since counting began 45 years ago. There were 71 recorded in 1976 during a time when a third of the whales were captured and sent to aquariums.

While killer whales around the world are doing well, the southern resident whales are threatened with extinction, CNN explained. This is due to a combination of factors including noise and shipping traffic, but the biggest threat faced by the species is the disappearance of chinook salmon, its chief food.

When the orcas have less salmon to eat, they rely on their stores of fat, which are filled with accumulated toxins that make the whales sick, Orca Conservancy President Shari Tarantino told CNN.

To address this problem, environmental advocates argue that the Snake River dams should be breached. One study found that if only four of 15 were removed, the population of salmon would double or triple.

"(Killer whales) are at the top of the food chain," Tarantino told CNN. "So when they're failing, everything beneath in the ecosystem is failing. That is a huge warning. It would be an absolute mess."

However, there was a silver lining to Friday's orca encounter. L124, a calf born last year and named Lucky, was present and looked healthy. It is a big deal for an orca calf to live a full year, The Seattle Times said.

And not everyone is convinced Mega is truly gone.

"I'm not buying it," former whale-watch boat captain Hobbes Buchanan told The Seattle Times. "He may have wandered off to do his own thing, and will come back. I am totally just not giving up."

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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