March 25, 2019 4:17 pm

Endangered orca feared to be dying spotted alive, in slightly better shape

J17 has manifested worrying signs of "peanut head," but researchers say she appears to be in slightly better shape than last December.

Credit: Centre for Whale Research

An endangered southern resident killer whale (SRKW) that researchers fear could die by this summer has been spotted alive and in slightly better condition than expected.

J17, a member of the J-pod, is one of just six dozen orcas remaining in the SRKW population.

WATCH: Scientists warn two southern resident orcas could soon die

In December, the Centre for Whale Research warned that the 42-year-old female had become so emaciated that she had developed “peanut head,” a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation.

READ MORE: 2 more Puget Sound orcas predicted to die by summer

J50, the SRKW that died last fall after an international attempt by scientists to diagnose and treat her for parasitic worms, also developed peanut head before her death.

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On Monday, the Centre for Whale Research said J17 had been spotted last week and even appeared to be in slightly better health than before.

READ MORE: Rare orca ‘superpod’ forms as search continues for J50, endangered whale many fear dead

“J17 was still alive and had even improved a little in body condition since December/January,” said the organization in a report on the March 22 sighting.

“However, her breath still smelled awful so the CWR will remain cautiously optimistic that she will survive.”

WATCH: Newborn orca seen swimming with southern resident killer whales

Losing J17 — like J50 in 2018 — would further threaten the declining SRKW population because she is a female of breeding age.

READ MORE: Marathon of mourning ends for mother orca, seen without dead calf for first time in weeks

A new calf was born to the SRKW K-pod in January, however researchers have warned that southern residents have not had a calf successfully reach maturity in three years.

There are just 74 southern residents remaining, 75 if the new calf survives.

As of January, orcas in the K- and J-pods were also believed to be pregnant, however there have been no other reports of calf births since then.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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