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Our research focuses primarily on killer whale foraging ecology and how that links to the social and communication behaviours of this top predator.


To achieve this we integrate photo-identification for population assessment and association studies with biological sampling for diet, genetic and pollutant analysis, long-term behavioural observations and acoustic recordings.


Our aim is to monitor the population while better understanding its potential structure so we can identify potential threats and help in its conservation and protection.

Below you can find out more about our current research


Foraging ecology and specialisation

Although killer whales in Iceland are observed feeding primarily on herring, our studies have shown that there are actually different feeding preferences within the population. Some whales specialise on herring year-round while others switch to higher trophic level prey. We are currently undertaking a study to understand the degree of foraging specialisation in putative herring-specialists so we can understand how they cope with fluctuations in the availability of this prey, and what consequences that has to the population as a whole.


Connectivity and population dynamics

We know that whales occurring in Iceland do not necessarily stay here year-round. We previously found that some whales seasonally travel to Scotland and using photo-identification we are currently comparing the individuals identified in Iceland with those seen elsewhere in the North Atlantic. This will allow us to understand connectivity between different locations, and any impacts that may have on the whales. Combining this with analyses of population dynamics will allow us to better understand their vulnerability to changes in the environment.


Social structure and kinship

Although killer whale groups tend to be matrilineal, our previous studies have shown that in this population there is a degree of flexibility in social associations. We are continuing studies on social structure, linking it with genetic samples from known individuals, to see how association preferences change over time and how groups are composed.



Killer whales in Iceland produce unique sounds but we still know little about the function of different sounds, and how they vary between groups and different social contexts. Using short-term and long-term acoustic recordings combined with land and boat-based observations, we are investigating variations in sounds produced and the role of acoustic communication in the life of these top predators.


Interspecific interactions

Pilot whales have been occurring increasingly in our field site of Vestmannaeyjar and are often observed displacing killer whales. We are using land and boat-based observations, photo-identification and acoustic recordings to understand the nature of these interactions, and the potential consequences they might have for killer whales locally.


Habitat use and occupancy

Our field site is a herring spawning ground during the summer months, particularly during July, but it is also an important refuge for other fish species and marine mammals. We are combining land-based observations with long-term acoustic recordings to understand which areas are important for killer whales and how they make use of them.


You can find out more about our current and past research in our Publications

Current Research



We are very grateful to all the people that have assisted and continue to assist us with preparations for fieldwork, sightings reports and who have kindly shared photographs.  In particular Sverrir Daníel Halldórsson, Gísli Ólafsson, Cathy Harlow, Alexa Kershaw, Rob Lott, Baldur Thorvaldsson, Páll Marvin Jónsson, Georg Skæringsson, Chiara Bertulli and Megan Wittaker.


Thank you also to our colleagues that have in the past provided equipment for our project, Dr. Marc Lammers for providing an EAR in 2014 and Dr. Mark Johnson for providing us with Dtags.

The following organisations have kindly supported our work through logistical assistance, sharing of sightings information and photographs:

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Marchon T, Rasmussen MH, Basran CJ, Whittaker M, Bertulli CG, Harlow C, Lott R, Boisseau O, Gendron F, Guo L, Hudson T, Jónsson H, Kershaw A, Kinni J, Lionnet LAMG, Louis M, Messina M, Michel H, Neubarth B, Ovide BG, Podt AE, Rempel JN, Ryan C, Savage E, Scott J, Smit R, Verdaat H, Vignisson SR and Samarra FIP (2023) Geographical movements, site fidelity and connectivity of killer whales within and outside herring grounds in Icelandic coastal waters. Marine Biology 171: 30 AVAILABLE HERE (with view-only access here)

Selbmann A, Miller PJO, Wensveen PJ, Svavarsson J and Samarra FIP (2023) Call combination patterns in Icelandic killer whales (Orcinus orca). Scientific Reports 13: 21771 AVAILABLE HERE

Remili, A, Dietz, R, Sonne C, Samarra FIP, Letcher RJ, Rikardsen AH, Ferguson SH, Watt CA, Matthews CJD, Kiszka JJ, Rosing-Asvid A and McKinney A (2023) Varying diet composition causes striking differences in legacy and emerging contaminant concentrations in killer whales across the North Atlantic. Environmental Science and Technology 57 (42): 16109-16120 AVAILABLE HERE

Selbmann A, Deecke VD, Filatova OA, Fedutin ID, Miller PJO, Simon M, Bowles AE, Lyrholm T, Lacey C, Magnúsdóttir EE, Maunder W, Wensveen PJ, Svavarsson J and Samarra FIP (2023). Call type repertoire of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Iceland and its variation across regions. Marine Mammal Science 39: 1136-1160 AVAILABLE HERE

Remili A, Dietz R, Sonne C, Samarra FIP, Rikardsen A, Kettemer LE, Ferguson SH, Watt CA, Matthews CJD, Kiszka J, Jourdain E, Borgå K and McKinney MA (2023) Revealing the diets of North Atlantic killer whales using quantitative fatty acid signature analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology 92: 1216-1229 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP and Esteban R (2022) Killer whale Orcinus orca (Linnaeus, 1758). In: Hackländer K, Zachos FE (eds.) Handbook of the Mammals of Europe AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP, Selbmann A, Aoki K and Miller PJO (2022) Observations of cetaceans in the waters of the Surtsey Nature Reserve between 2008 and 2022. Surtsey Research 15: 89-96 AVAILABLE HERE


Selbmann A, Basran C, Bertulli CG, Hudson T, Mrusczok M-T, Rasmussen MH, Rempel JN, Scott J, Svavarsson J, Wensveen M, Whittaker M and Samarra FIP (2022). Occurrence of long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) and killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Icelandic coastal waters and their interspecific interactions. Acta Ethologica 25: 141-154 AVAILABLE HERE


Foote AD, Hooper R, Alexander A, Baird RW, Baker CS, Ballance L, Barlow J, Brownlow A, Collins T, Constantine R, Dalla Rosa L, Davison NJ, Durban JW, Esteban R, Excoffier L, Martin SLF, Forney KA, Gerrodette T, Gilbert MTP, Guinet C, Hanson MB, Li, S, Martin MD, Robertson KM, Samarra FIP, de Stephanis R, Tavares SB, Tixier P, Totterdell JA, Wade P, Wolf JBW, Fan G, Zhang Y and Morin PA (2021) Runs of homozygosity in killer whale genomes provide a global record of demographic histories. Molecular Ecology doi: 10.1111/mec.16137 AVAILABLE HERE


Remili A, Letcher RJ, Samarra FIP, Dietz R, Sonne C, Desforges JP, Víkingsson G, Blair D and McKinney MA (2021) Individual prey specialisation drives PCBs in Icelandic killer whales. Environmental Science and Technology 55(8): 4923-4931 AVAILABLE HERE

Selbmann A, Deecke VD, Fedutin ID, Filatova OA, Miller PJO, Svavarsson J and Samarra, FIP (2020) A comparison of Northeast Atlantic killer whale (Orcinus orca) stereotyped call repertoires. Marine Mammal Science, doi: 10.1111/mms.12750 AVAILABLE HERE

Pinfield R, Dillane E, Runge AKW, Evans A, Mirimin L, Niemann J, Reed TE, Reid DG, Rogan E, Samarra FIP, Sigsgaard EE and Foote AD (2019) False negative detections from environmental DNA collected in the presence of large numbers of killer whales (Orcinus orca). Environmental DNA, doi: 10.1002/edn3.32 AVAILABLE HERE

Jourdain E, Ugarte F, Víkingsson G, Samarra F, Ferguson SH, Lawson J, Vongraven D and Desportes G (2019) North Atlantic killer whale Orcinus orca populations: a review of current knowledge and threats to conservation. Mammal Review, doi: 10.1111/mam.12168 AVAILABLE HERE

Foote AD, Martin MD, Louis M, Pacheco G, Robertson KM, Sinding M-HS, Amaral AR, Baird RW, Baker CS, Ballance L, Barlow J, Brownlow A, Collins T, Constantine R, Dabin W, Dalla Rosa L, Davison NJ, Durban JW, Esteban R, Ferguson SH, Gerrodette T, Guinet C, Hanson MB, Hoggard W, Matthews CJD, Samarra FIP, de Stephanis R, Tavares SB, Tixier P, Totterdell JA, Wade P, Excoffier L, Gilbert MTP, Wolf JBW, Morin PA (2019) Killer whale genomes reveal a complex history of recurrent admixture and vicariance. Molecular Ecology, doi: 10.1111/mec.15099 AVAILABLE HERE

Selbmann A, Deecke VB, Fedutin ID, Filatova OA, Miller PJO, Simon M, Bowles AE, Boiskin R, Lyrholm T and Samarra FIP (2019) A catalogue of pulsed calls produced by killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Iceland 2008-2016. Report of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute HV2019-23, ISSN 2298-9137 AVAILABLE HERE

A version of the sound catalogue with audible call examples is AVAILABLE HERE - please open with acrobat reader.

Samarra FIP, Bassoi M, Béesau J, Elíasdóttir MO, Gunnarsson K, Mrusczok M-T, Rasmussen M, Rempel JN, Thorvaldsson B and Víkingsson GA (2018) Prey of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Iceland. PLoS ONE 13:e0207287 AVAILABLE HERE

Danishevskaya AY, Filatova O, Ford J, Matkin C, Miller P, Samarra F, Yurk H and Hoyt E (2018) Crowd intelligence can discern between repertoires of killer whale ecotypes. Bioacoustics, DOI: 10.1080/09524622.2018.1538902 AVAILABLE HERE

Tavares SB, Samarra FIP, Graves J, Pascoal S and Miller PJO (2018) Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Iceland show weak genetic structure among diverse isotopic signatures and observed movement patterns. Ecology and Evolution 8: 11900-11913 AVAILABLE HERE

Desforges JP, Hall A, McConnell B, Asvid AR, Barber JL, Brownlow A, De Guise S, Eulaers I, Jepson PD, Letcher RJ, Levin M, Ross PS, Samarra F, Víkingsson G, Sonne C and Dietz R (2018) Predicting global killer whale population collapse from PCB pollution. Science 361: 1373-1376 AVAILABLE HERE

Alves F, Towers J, Baird RW, Olson PA, Bearzi G, Bonizzoni S, Halicka Z, Alessandrini A, Kopelman AH, Yzoard C, Rasmussen MH, Bertulli CG, Jourdain E, Gullan A, Rocha D, Hupman K, Mrusczok MT, Samarra FIP, Magalhães S, Visser IN, Dinis A (2018) The incidence of bent dorsal fins in free-ranging cetaceans. Journal of Anatomy 232: 263-269 AVAILABLE HERE

Jourdain E, Tavares SB and Samarra FIP (2017) Incidence of probable vertebral column deformities in Norwegian and Icelandic killer whales (Orcinus orca). Aquatic Mammals 43: 682-690 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP, Tavares S, Béesau J, Deecke VB, Fennell A, Miller PJO, Pétursson H, Sigurjónsson J and Víkingsson GA (2017) Movements and site fidelity of killer whales (Orcinus orca) relative to seasonal and long-term shifts in herring (Clupea harengus) distribution. Marine Biology 164: 159 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP, Tavares SB, Miller PJO and Víkingsson GA (2017) Killer whales of Iceland 2006-2015. Report of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute HV2017-005 AVAILABLE HERE

Richard G, Filatova OA, Samarra FIP, Fedutin ID, Lammers M and Miller PJO (2017) Icelandic herring-eating killer whales feed at night. Marine Biology, 164: 32 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP, Vighi M, Aguilar A and Víkingsson GA (2017) Intra-population variation in isotopic niche in herring-eating killer whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 564: 199-210 AVAILABLE HERE

Tavares S, Samarra FIP and Miller PJO (2017) A multilevel society of herring-eating killer whales indicates adaptation to prey characteristics. Behavioral Ecology, 28: 500-514 AVAILABLE HERE

Filatova O, Miller P, Yurk H, Samarra F, Hoyt E, Ford J, Matkin C and Barrett-Lennard L (2016) Physical constraints of dialect evolution in killer whales. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 140: 3755-3764 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP, Deecke, VB, Miller, PJO (2016) Low-frequency signals produced by Northeast Atlantic killer whales (Orcinus orca). The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 139: 1149-1157 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP and Foote AD (2015) Seasonal movements of killer whales between Iceland and Shetland. Aquatic Biology, 24: 75-79 AVAILABLE HERE

Filatova OF, Samarra FIP, Deecke VB, Ford JKB, Miller PJO and Yurk H (2015) Cultural evolution of killer whale vocalizations: background, mechanisms and consequences. Behaviour, 152: 2001-2038 AVAILABLE HERE

Filatova, OF, Miller PJO, Yurk, H, Samarra, FIP, Hoyt, E, Ford, JKB, Matkin, CO, Barrett-Lennard, LG (2015) Killer whale call frequency is similar across the oceans, but varies across sympatric ecotypes. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 138: 251-257 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP (2015) Variations in killer whale (Orcinus orca) food-associated calls produced during different prey behavioural contexts. Behavioural Processes 116: 33-42 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP and Miller PJO (2015) Prey-induced behavioural plasticity of herring-eating killer whales. Marine Biology, 162: 809-821 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP, Deecke VB, Simonis AE and Miller PJO (2015) Geographic variation in the time-frequency characteristics of high-frequency whistles produced by killer whales (Orcinus orca). Marine Mammal Science, 31: 688-706 AVAILABLE HERE

Foote AD, Kuningas S, and Samarra FIP (2014) North Atlantic killer whale research; past, present and future. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 94: 1245-1252 AVAILABLE HERE

Mäkeläinen P, Esteban R, Foote AD, Kuningas S, Nielsen J, Samarra FIP, Similä T, Van Geel NCF and Vikingsson GA (2014) A comparison of pigmentation features among North Atlantic killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 94: 1335-1341 AVAILABLE HERE

Shamir L, Yerbi C, Simpson R, von Benda-Beckmann AM, Tyack P, Samarra F, Miller PJO and Wallin J (2014) Classification of large acoustic datasets using machine learning and crowdsourcing:  Application to whale calls. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 135: 953-962 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra FIP, Fennell A, Aoki K, Deecke VB and Miller PJO (2012) Persistence of skin marks on killer whales (Orcinus orca) caused by the parasitic sea  lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) in Iceland. Marine Mammal Science, 28: 395-401 AVAILABLE HERE

Samarra, FIP, Deecke, VB, Vinding, K, Rasmussen, MH, Swift, R and Miller, PJO (2010) Killer whales (Orcinus orca) produce ultrasonic whistles. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 128: EL205-EL210 AVAILABLE HERE

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