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Orcas: Killer of Whales and Friender of Humans

Uppdaterat: 4 nov. 2022

One of the most common misconceptions in the animal kingdom can be found when talking about Orcas, also commonly known through their colloquial name, the Killer Whale. This animal is majestic as frick, is the ocean's apex predator, and is found in all of the world's oceans (though not in the Baltic Sea, much to my dismay). Belonging to the Cetacean subgroup of mammals, it isn't too surprising to find out that they are also highly intelligent, a trait commonly found in that family tree.

An Orca pod about to hunt. Source:

However, saying that an animal is intelligent can be incredibly misleading as that statement is always made relative to other animals (and to be fair, since every animal is kinda stupid it's not hard to be above average). In any case, to put in context just how intelligent they are, it has been recently found out that the part of the brain that navigates compassion, empathy, perception, motor control, self-awareness, and interpersonal experience, called the insular cortex, is the most elaborated of all animals. This leads to Orcas having incredibly high social intelligence, and also partly explains their incredibly diverse culture among pods which are entirely separate societies with different cuisines, languages and dialects, social customs, and other differentiating factors. Kinda reminds you of what distinguishes nations doesn't it?

While we're on the topic of social structures. It is true that Orca pods are generally quite distinct, but one thing that is found among all pods is matriarchal societies where the eldest female Orca, the matriarch, is the pod leader. What's really interesting about this, besides that matriarchs are not super common among mammals (humans included haha), is that male Orcas are on average larger than females one. One of the main basis for male/female-centric social structures among animals is that the "leading" gender holds qualities that the other gender lacks, or has an inferior version of. Among for example lemurs, which social structures are also based around a matriarch, the females are generally slightly larger than their male counterparts. However, there isn't such a primitively based case with Orcas. Instead, it appears that the son and daughter's strong relationships with their mother are what ties the pod together and that the children stay with their mother their entires live.

A group of orcas herding herring cohesively. Source:

Actually, there is one distinction that does hold some weight. Female orcas generally live up to 50-80 years, while males tend to age to about 30-60 years. A reasoning behind why Orcas pods are a matriarch is that since females can live longer, they are the ones hoarding knowledge to be shared with the younger ones, therefore fulfilling an important function in their society. This is actually very similar to the Elephants, another highly intelligent creature that is a matriarch.

Interestingly enough, Orcas are one of the two animals besides humans that undergo menopause. A theory behind this is that it is more beneficial for older females to stay alive due to the aforementioned function, rather than undergo a risky pregnancy since the mortality rate increases with age.

Two Orcas taking a breath of fresh air. Source:

In any case, after dropping this huge bomb of information, it's time to explain the most common misconception about Killer Whales, and that is that they are killers. I mean, they kill Whales, but they don't kill humans! Well, not when they aren't in captivity at least. I can actually attest to this fact as I swam with Orcas in Norway, on the coast north of Tromsø. It was really cool, both figuratively and literally as I did this in December at a location that has the same latitude as Alaska and Siberia. There hasn't been any recorded case of a human being killed by an Orca in the wild, so it was very safe. Tying into this statement, an Orca's diet is very specialized, and they rarely diverge from their feeding habits. The resident Orcas in Norway mainly eat Herring, while the transient ones found in places such as the Arctic and South America tend to mainly eat mammals such as Seals. (And in a certain infamous case, Great White Sharks off the South African coast)

Me in a wetsuit. It looked as goofy IRL as it does in this picture. Skjervøy, 2019.

There is so much to talk about when it comes to Orcas, as I haven't even discussed about the differences between transient and resident Orcas, that Orcas are the biggest douchebags of the ocean (Look up Orcas throwing seals up in the air, there isn't any explanation for them doing that other than playing with their food), how Orcas have cooperated with humans in the past when hunting for food and the fact that an Orca has been a famous movie star. Seriously, If you are ever in the need of having easy fun facts readily available then just think of Orcas. In any case, if this article has piqued your interest then I would suggest reading real articles about the species. My farewell gift this time is a video I recorded from the aforementioned trip to Norway.

På gjensyn!

Large pod of about 30 Orcas off the Norwegian arctic coast. Skjervøy, 2019.

Articles about Orcas that may interest you and largely influenced this article:

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