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Endangered orca once feared to be dying showing marked improvement: researchers

J17 was previously observed with a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation. Centre for Whale Research. Photo by Melisa Pinnow

An endangered southern resident killer whale (SKRW) that researchers had feared was close to death has shown a marked improvement, according to a recent observation report.

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

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The 42-year-old was spotted around New Year’s severely emaciated, and researchers said they feared she would be dead by summer.

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But the Centre for Whale Research spotted her near Whidbey Island in Washington state on Sunday and reported encouraging signs.

“J17 has improved and showed little sign of the ‘peanut-head’ condition that had us very worried during an encounter with her on New Year’s Eve,” wrote the group in its encounter report.

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“Peanut head” refers to a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation. 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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READ MORE: Endangered orca feared to be dying spotted alive, in slightly better shape

J17’s fate is important because she remains one of the only breeding-age females in the endangered population.

There are just 74 southern residents remaining — 75 if a new calf born in January survives.

However, not a single SKRW calf has successfully reached maturity in the last three years.

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