The scientists followed the killer whales by boat, trying to catch the precise moment the animals broke the surface.
Then, using a 25-foot pole strung with petri dishes, researchers leaned out and gathered samples of the moist exhaled air that shot like a geyser from each whale's blowhole.
For four years a team of researchers gathered these orca breath samples from the waters of Washington and British Columbia. And by comparing them to surface waters and orca death records, the scientists stumbled upon a trend.
Killer whales from Puget Sound's endangered southern residents to the transient whales living hundreds of miles offshore are inhaling bacteria, fungi and viruses once believed to be found only on land. Some of the pathogens are highly virulent. And some are even antibiotic-resistant.
The discovery comes as researchers also learn that respiratory ailments may be a leading cause of orca deaths, and that leads biologists to a new question:
Given that Puget Sound's orcas are stressed and potentially more susceptible to illness, how much risk could exposure to new sources of infection pose?
"It's pretty disturbing and opens a whole new can of worms," said marine-mammal veterinarian Pete Schroeder. "We have an iconic species of animal that is in danger and whose ability to withstand a severe infection is in question. Now we know they can inhale antibiotic-resistant bacteria and it can live in their upper respiratory tract."
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