Killer whales are one of the most successful species in the seas, reigning at the top of the food chain in every ocean. And one of the reasons they’re so successful is simple: they’re really, really smart.
Connected: Killer whales are learning terrifying new behaviors. Are they getting smarter?
They get carried away with fashion
Killer whales are social learners and sometimes get caught up in fads – temporary behaviors started by one or two individuals, adopted by others and then quickly abandoned. For example, a population in the Pacific went through a phase of wearing salmon as hats in the 1980s. The trend began when a female killer whale began carrying a dead salmon on her head, and in the following weeks the behavior spread to two other pods in the same community.
Researchers observed orcas carrying salmon do the same behavior the following year and then never saw them carrying fish on their heads again, according to a 2004 review of nonhuman culture published in the journal
Biological conservation. Recent killer whales attack boats in Europe it may be another example of killer whale fashion.
Connected: Orcas attack a boat with ruthless efficiency, tearing off the rudders in just 15 minutes They participate in “greeting ceremonies”
Four killer whales playing underwater. (Image credit: by wildestanimal via Getty Images)
Killer whales have elaborate social rituals and even engage in what researchers call “greeting ceremonies.” These interactions are the killer whale equivalent of a mosh pit, with killer whales lining up in two rows and then flipping over together.
Smithsonian Magazine reported. During one such event, the greeting coincided with a birth. Three pods of killer whales reunited in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the US-Canada border in 2020, and as the killer whales whistled and snapped to each other, a pregnant female gave birth to a calf. KUOW, Seattle’s National Public Radio news station reported. The killer whales were not foraging and appeared to be there only to socialize on the day of birth. They have different dialects
A group of killer whales swimming off the western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Cavan Images / Steven J. Kazlowski / GHG via Getty Images)
Killer whales live in pods based around kin mothers and their offspring. Each pod has its own distinctive calls, like different dialects of the same language. Species can learn to imitate new sounds, which can help them form these dialects.
The researchers trained a captive female
orca named Wikie to imitate human words such as “hello” and “bye-bye” as well as the calls of some other animals. Wikie learned quickly and was able to play some new sounds on his first try. They use specialized hunting strategies
Killer whales come ashore to catch young sea lions in Patagonia, Argentina. (Image credit: Gerard Soury via Getty Images)
Killer whales learn highly specialized hunting strategies and pass this knowledge on to their offspring. Some killer whales in Argentina beach themselves to grab seals ashore, while in Antarctica other populations create waves to push seals off the floating sea ice.
And it’s not just seals learning unique strategies; killer whales are salmon specialists in parts of the Pacific Ocean, beaked whale hunters off Australia and stingray hunters off New Zealand, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Connected: “Chaos of clicks and sounds below” as 70 killer whales kill a blue whale They are picky eaters
Some orca populations seem to have learned that a shark’s liver is particularly rich in nutrients, and that it’s worth killing the sharks and discarding the rest of their carcasses just to get at the food organs. Researchers have documented populations of killer whales targeting the livers of various sharks, including
attacks great white sharks ( Carcharodon carcharias) off South Africa and tearing whale sharks ( Rhyncodon type) off Mexico. They seem to have friends
Three killer whales watch divers underwater. (Image credit: by wildestanimal via Getty Images)
A 2021 study published in the journal
Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that killer whales’ social bonds are comparable to those seen in primates, including humans. A killer whale interacts more with certain members of its pod, usually those of a similar age and of the same sex.
Michael Weissresearch director of the Washington State Whale Research Center, led the study and spoke with Science for two distantly related young men who were always together during the study. “Anytime you see a pod of whales, those two are right there interacting with each other,” Weiss said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word friendship here.” They seem to be grieving
In this photo provided by the Center for Whale Research, a baby killer whale is pushed by its mother after it was born off the Canadian coast near Victoria, British Columbia, on July 24, 2018. (Image: Michael Weiss/Center for Whale Research)
In 2018, researchers observed a seemingly distressed female killer whale pushing her dead newborn calf. The killer whale, named Talekua,
pounded his lifeless pig for at least 17 days, covering 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of ocean before she eventually let go. The Whale Research Center describes it as a “tour of grief”.
Conservation of whales and dolphins noted on its website that researchers have documented several species of whales and dolphins carrying dead calves or young, and these “mourning behaviors” are likely common among social, long-lived mammals. In the past, scientists were reluctant to use words like “anguish” for fear of projecting human emotions onto animals, BBC Earth reported earlier. The reasons behind this behavior are not yet fully understood. They can be trained
Lolita performs with her trainers at the Miami Aquarium in 2013. (Image credit: Shutterstock)
Humans have been training killer whales in captivity for decades. At SeaWorld, for example, killer whales strike poses, splash crowds, flap their pectoral fins, and generally flip flop on command.
Rearing killer whales in an artificial environment is controversial, with some experts arguing that it causes stress and
contributes to disease. SeaWorld announced in 2016 it was ending its orca captive breeding program, and the orcas it has now will be the last generation it cares for. They take care of each other
Killer whales in the Indian Ocean. (Image credit: Serge Melesan via Getty Images)
Researchers have documented numerous examples of killer whales supporting their fellow capsule members. For example, killer whales have helped injured or deformed family members survive by catching food for them,
Daily Mail reported earlier. A killer mother whales also take care of their sons even in adulthoodand orca grandmothers care for their grandchildren after they go through menopause (one of the few species to do so).
A 2015 study published in the journal
Current Biology found that older females also guide their pod members to food, especially in difficult times when food is scarce, suggesting that killer whales that are no longer reproducing support the pod’s chances of survival by imparting wisdom. Their brains are big
A killer whale catches herring next to a fishing boat in Tromsø, Norway (Image credit: Alessandro De Maddalena via Shutterstock)
A killer whale’s brain can weigh up to 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) and is well equipped to analyze the underwater environment.
Orlando Sentinel reported in 2010. One of the species’ most impressive intellectual tools involves echolocation. Orcas click to create sound waves and locate prey by detecting when these waves bounce off something. Researchers believe that southern killer whales, a population of killer whales that live off the Pacific Northwest coast, can distinguish chinook salmon from other fish by detecting the size and orientation of the salmon’s swim bladders, which emit unique acoustic signatures, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They hunted whales with men
For about 1,000 years, a population of killer whales off the coast of Australia hunted alongside the local population and later European whalers. They pounded the water to alert people to the whales’ presence and sometimes towed them to their location using a rope. In return, the humans gave the orcas the lips and tongues of the whales. The relationship became known as “The Law of Language”. This continued until the 1930s, when commercial whaling led to a sharp decline in beaked whale stocks. The killer whales left and this killer whale population is now believed to be dead.