Dr. Michael A. Bigg 1939-1990
The following was written by Dr.John Ford and was part of a section in the publication of Orcanetwork in Killer whales Around the World, Pacific Northwest.
Bigg’s Killer Whale: A Tribute to the Man Who Started It All
Dr. Michael A. Bigg 1939-1990
For over 15 years, Mike documented in meticulous detail the demographics and dynamics of killer whales in coastal
waters of the Pacific Northwest – births and deaths, social associations of individuals and 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, and he inspired
and encouraged many students and research colleagues to undertake studies of their own to better understand this
remarkable animal. Mike’s office at the Pacific Biological Station 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, Mike 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 decades that have passed since Mike Bigg’s 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 speciation of different 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 that transient killer whales be called “Bigg’s Killer Whale.” This would indeed be a fitting way of honoring the memory of this remarkable pioneer of killer whale science.