the Legacy continues…………………….
Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}

A Tribute to the Man Who Started It All

{ Memorial Tribute by Dr. John K.B. Ford }

147207542952428Dr. Michael A. Bigg


For over 15 years, Dr. Michael A. Bigg documented in meticulous detail the demographics and dynamics of Killer Whales in coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest correlating births & deaths, social associations of individuals & pods and many other aspects of their natural history. What is most astounding is that the majority of this ground-breaking work was done in his spare time, as Mike’s official research priorities were seals and sea lions and his research on those species was impressive as well. Mike was driven by a passion to solve the mysteries of Killer Whale life history and his enthusiasm was infectious. He loved to share in the excitement whenever new insights were gained as he inspired and encouraged many students and the general public as well as research colleagues worldwide to undertake studies of their own to better understand this remarkable animal. Mike’s office at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, became a mecca for students from around the world who would come for advice about how to study these animals in the wild. Always free with his time and knowledge, Dr. Bigg always made sure that they headed off on the right path.

Of all the interesting facets of Killer Whale life history, Mike was particularly fascinated by the relationship between “residents” and “transients”. The notion that two different forms of Killer Whale could coexist in social and reproductive isolation, each with its own distinct diet and lifestyle to match was without precedent and hard to explain. How could this situation have evolved and how was it maintained? Mike pondered such questions at length, discussing ideas with colleagues and writing copious notes summarizing his thoughts. Sadly, Mike was never able to write-up his studies on transient Killer Whales. He died of leukemia in 1990 at the age of 51. Over the two-plus decades that have passed since his death, much has been learned about Killer Whales in different parts of the world. It is now clear that distinct, ecologically specialized populations coexist in other regions as well and may be typical of Killer Whales globally. How Killer Whale ecotypes might have developed and what they represent from an evolutionary perspective are hot topics in the current scientific literature on cetaceans. Central to the recent discussion on potential differences in Killer Whale lineages that share the same waters are ideas that Mike had been deliberating on over 25 years ago, as his unpublished notes from 1985 reveal: “With a high degree of intelligence (i.e., flexible behavior, not all instinctual) and long lives, differences in behavior and morphology can develop within separate lineages that are sympatric”.

This is possible because the social isolation of each lineage in Killer Whales appears to be so complete as to function in a manner equivalent to geographical isolation. The body of evidence that transient Killer Whales represent a distinct species from other Killer Whales lines is becoming compelling. Although it may take some time before this is resolved and a new species is formally proposed, there is a growing movement among Killer Whale researchers worldwide that transient Killer Whales be called “Bigg’s Killer Whales”. This would indeed be a fitting way of honoring the memory of the “Father of Killer Whale Research” and this remarkable pioneer of Killer Whale science. The researchers and marine biologists who study wild Killer Whales today, owe much to the pioneering research, accomplishments and visionary work of Dr. Michael A. Bigg. In the early 1970′s, Mike was faced with the challenge of determining the status of Killer Whales in coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest for the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans. At that time, almost nothing was known about the species, either in that area or elsewhere. Early in his study, Mike devised a novel field technique for studying the species by using photographic identification of individuals using natural markings. This was a radical approach and some questioned whether it was even possible. While most agreed that some well-marked whales could be recognized and followed, it was Mike’s discovery that every individual Killer Whale was identifiable with a high quality photo that made the difference. Mike proved beyond any doubt that photo-identification is the key to understanding the lives of Killer Whales and it is now the standard tool used in field of Killer Whales globally. 

– J.K.B. Ford –