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Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}

Killer Whale

“Orcinus orca”

The Killer Whale is the largest member of the dolphin family and are without a doubt, the ocean’s top apex predator. Killer Whales are sometimes called the “Wolves of the Sea”, because they hunt in groups like wolf packs targeting even the largest animal on earth, the Blue Whale. Because of their fierce reputation, Killer Whales are sometimes called the Ballena asesina (“assassin whale”) by the Spanish. They were referred to as “whale killers” by sailors who witnessed their attacks on larger cetaceans and over time this name was changed to “Killer Whales”. A large majority of the world’s general public mistakenly call this animal “Orca” but from the scientific viewpoint, there is no cetacean known as “Orca”. The word “orca” in latin simply means “whale”. The genus “Orcinus” in latin means “bringer of death”. Therefore, any type of whale could be classified with the name orca a.k.a. Beluga orca, Sperm orca, Blue orca, Fin orca, Sei orca, Gray orca, Minke orca, False Killer orca, Humpback orca, etc. To further enhance this statement, the word “Orca” is never used with the Pygmy Killer Whale, Dwarf Killer Whale or the False Killer Whale. Orcus was a Roman God of the Netherworld and this genus “Orcinus” is likely a reference to the ferocious reputation of the Killer Whale. The Sea World corporation many years ago, coined the word as a marketing feature to the public to sell tickets to see the “little baby orca” instead of the “little baby killer”. Male Killer Whales known as “bulls” measure 20-26 feet long and weigh as much as 22,000 pounds. Females are slightly smaller at 16-23 feet in length and an average weight of 16,500 pounds. Their large size and strength make these oceanic predators among the fastest marine mammals, able to reach speeds in excess of 30 knots or about 34 mph. 

With their 5-inch-long teeth, they can also eat birds; a captive whale discovered that it could regurgitate fish onto the surface, attracting gulls and then eat the birds. Four other captive Killer Whales then learned to copy the behavior. They are highly social and intelligent creatures. Some populations are composed of matrilineal family groups known as pods, which are the most stable of any animal species. There are both resident and transient populations of Killer Whales. Resident populations eat more fish, while transient populations tend to feed on seals, sea lions, other whales along with a variety of other marine mammals. Killer Whales possess sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviors which are specific to a particular pod and passed across generations, have been described as manifestations of culture. Female Killer Whales known as “cows”, mature at around age 15. Mothers calve with usually a single offspring about once every 5 years after a 17-month pregnancy. In resident pods, birth occurs at any time of year although winter is the most popular. Mortality is extremely high during the first six to seven months of life, when nearly half of all calves die. According to observations in several regions, all male and female Killer Whale pod members participate in the care of the young. Females breed until age 40, meaning that on average they raise five offspring. The lifespan of wild females averages 50 years, with a maximum of 80–90 years. Males sexually mature at the age of 15 but do not typically reproduce until age 21. Wild males live to around 29 years on average with a maximum of 50–60 years. Killer Whales are found in all oceans from the Arctic to Antarctic. Due to their enormous range, numbers and density, distributional estimates are difficult to compare but this apex predator clearly prefers higher latitudes and coastal areas. On occasion, Killer Whales swim into freshwater where they have been documented as far as 100 miles inland.

In late 2005, the “southern resident” population of Killer Whales that inhabits British Columbia and Washington state waters were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List. Habitat disturbance caused by noise and conflicts with boats is also a significant worldwide threat. The Killer Whale has the second-heaviest brains in the marine mammal world and is the widest ranging mammals only after humans. Individual animals are identified from their dorsal fin and saddle patch. Variations such as nicks, scratches and tears on the dorsal fin and the pattern of white or grey in the saddle patch are unique. Published directories contain identifying photographs and names for hundreds of North Pacific animals. Killer Whales feature strongly in the mythologies of indigenous cultures, with their reputation ranging from being the souls of humans to merciless killers. Killer Whales, Long-finned & Short-finned Pilot Whales are the only non-human species in which the females go through menopause and live for decades after they have finished breeding. All members of a pod use similar calls known collectively as a dialect. Dialects are composed of specific numbers and types of repetitive calls. They are complex and stable over time. Call patterns & structure are distinctive within complex female-led social structures. Because females can reach age 90, as many as four generations travel together. Individuals separate for only a few hours at a time to mate or forage.

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