SEATTLE (Reuters) - A pregnant killer whale from an endangered U.S. Pacific Northwest pod found dead in Canadian waters last week had several of her teeth stolen after her body was pulled to shore to await a necropsy, experts in Washington state said on Monday.
The orca, who was pregnant with a full-term fetus, was identified by biologists as an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, according to the Orca Network, a killer whale research group based in Washington state.
Scientists were still trying to pinpoint the cause of Rhapsody's death, but believe it might have been related to her pregnancy and a possible infection of the fetus, the group said.
The death brings to 77 the number of living orcas who belong to three pods that comprise the southern resident orca population, which lives primarily in the Puget Sound, down from 98 in 1995 and historic highs of more than 200 in the 19th century, the Orca Network said.
"We cannot express how tragic this loss is for the struggling, precariously small family of resident orcas in the Salish Sea," the group said in a statement.
Rhapsody's body was discovered floating in the Strait of Georgia, off the coast of mainland Canada, and pulled to a boat launch in Courtenay, British Columbia, for a necropsy on Saturday.
During the procedure, biologists found several of her teeth had been cut out with a saw, apparently the previous night, according to the conservation group, the Victoria Marine Science Association.
Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans have launched an investigation and were looking for the person involved for any legal violations, according to CTV News Vancouver.
Rhapsody's death is the second from the orca community in recent months. In October, a weeks-old orca disappeared from its mother's side and was pronounced dead by scientists. The baby was the first born to the population in two years, experts said.
The largest members of the dolphin family, orcas are highly intelligent and social mammals who remain in pods through their lifetimes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Threats to the population include environmental stressors and pollution as well as diminishing supplies of their primary food source, Chinook salmon, due to overfishing. Southern resident orcas were listed on the U.S. endangered species list in 2005.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler