Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from Aquatic Biosystems and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research

Prey items and predation behavior of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Nunavut, Canada based on Inuit hunter interviews

Steven H Ferguson12*, Jeff W Higdon3 and Kristin H Westdal4

Author Affiliations

1 Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Central and Arctic Region, 501 University Crescent, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N6 Canada

2 Department of Environment and Geography, University of Manitoba, 501 University Crescent, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N6 Canada

3 Higdon Wildlife Consulting, 45 Pilgrim Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba R2M 0L3 Canada

4 Oceans North Canada, 515-70 Arthur Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B 1G7 Canada

For all author emails, please log on.

Aquatic Biosystems 2012, 8:3  doi:10.1186/2046-9063-8-3

Published: 30 January 2012



Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the most widely distributed cetacean, occurring in all oceans worldwide, and within ocean regions different ecotypes are defined based on prey preferences. Prey items are largely unknown in the eastern Canadian Arctic and therefore we conducted a survey of Inuit Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to provide information on the feeding ecology of killer whales. We compiled Inuit observations on killer whales and their prey items via 105 semi-directed interviews conducted in 11 eastern Nunavut communities (Kivalliq and Qikiqtaaluk regions) from 2007-2010.


Results detail local knowledge of killer whale prey items, hunting behaviour, prey responses, distribution of predation events, and prey capture techniques. Inuit TEK and published literature agree that killer whales at times eat only certain parts of prey, particularly of large whales, that attacks on large whales entail relatively small groups of killer whales, and that they hunt cooperatively. Inuit observations suggest that there is little prey specialization beyond marine mammals and there are no definitive observations of fish in the diet. Inuit hunters and elders also documented the use of sea ice and shallow water as prey refugia.


By combining TEK and scientific approaches we provide a more holistic view of killer whale predation in the eastern Canadian Arctic relevant to management and policy. Continuing the long-term relationship between scientists and hunters will provide for successful knowledge integration and has resulted in considerable improvement in understanding of killer whale ecology relevant to management of prey species. Combining scientists and Inuit knowledge will assist in northerners adapting to the restructuring of the Arctic marine ecosystem associated with warming and loss of sea ice.

beluga whales; bowhead whales; group size; hunting behaviour; narwhal whales; predator-prey relations; prey capture techniques; Traditional Ecological Knowledge; seals; walrus