A killer whale of a tale: when peer review sometimes fail
When examining claims in the scientific press one always tend to look to whether or not the evidence that this is based on has been subject to peer review. Science journalism can be something of a mixed bag and with the ever increasing need to produce headlines that will generate attention (clickbait) and advertising revenue.
One such example is a recent news report in the web based science news outlet Phys.Org entitled: "Killer toothaches likely cause misery for captive orca". The article relates to a paper published in the Archives of Oral Biology that claims that tooth damage in captive killer whales is endemic and harmful to the animals. However a closer look at the paper and its authors give some calls for concern.
Looking at what is available in the original paper it seems that the assessments made were from photographs taken by various individuals whilst visiting various facilities. None of the authors appears to have had direct access to physically examine the teeth of any of these animals. The methodology of the data gathering is questionable and it is unlikely that all animals within the groups studied were assessed effectively. The authors clearly wanted to fit their hypothesis to the available data.
Only one of the authors, Carolina Loch, has any academic qualification in dentistry. Although Dr Lock's claim in the Phys.Org article that the animals would have to have there teeth cavities flushed out with "chemicals” unfortunately resonates strongly with the mantra of the pseudo scientists when promoting An Appeal to Nature. These do not sound like the words of an objective scientist.
It should be noted that humans regularly the clean their teeth and wash their mouths out with “chemicals” to promote oral hygiene on the recommendation of a dentist.
Moreover there is a growing trend in veterinary dentistry for both domestic and wild animals which would also use various chemicals to combat disease and promote the health of gums and teeth. Moreover, the paper does acknowledge the fact that tooth erosion is seen commonly in wild cetaceans but it's not very clear on what kind of comparative analysis was used. Tooth erosion in wild killer whales is well documented.
Further, four of the authors are actively are opposed to killer whales in captive care:
Jeffrey Ventre and John Jett are former SeaWorld trainers who both left this facility in 1995 - with Ventre being dismissed for misconduct. They both appeared in the film Blackfish. Jett is now a biologists and lab coordinator and Ventre is now a physiotherapist.
Ingrid Visser a scientist based in New Zealand who has undertaken work with wild killer whales. However her only direct contact with caring for a killer whale resulted in the death of a neonate killer whale due to her lack of experience in this field.
Jordan Waltz is a freelance graphic designer who has undertaken work for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Interestingly, his mailing address on the paper is the address of animal rights activist Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project in Santa Monica an organisation Waltz actively contributes to in their news blogs. In his bio on this web site he states:
“...I am an artist by day, researcher by night. I served as archivist and researcher for the documentary films "Blackfish" and "Vancouver Aquarium: Uncovered." Most of my writings cater towards the lesser-known corners of the cetacean captivity issue...”
These facts alone should be a red flag to the actual objectivity and underlying agenda of this paper.
It would be interesting to know how appropriate and stringent the peer review was undertaken on this paper before it was published. Judging by the credentials of the authors and the methodology used this paper seems to be very poor and really does not elevate the reputation of the journal Archives of Oral Biology.