10 Facts About Killer Whales (Orca)
1. Killer Whales Are Part of the Dolphin Family
Killer whales, also called orcas, are the largest marine mammal that is a part of the dolphin family. Despite their name, they are not whales. They received their name due to their large size and suitability as predators. Some believe their name came from sailors who called them whale killers because they are known to eat whales. These distinctive marine mammals have a unique black and white coloring and big frame. They are also recognizable by their grey patch, called a saddle, right behind their dorsal fins.
2. Orcas Are Found in Every Ocean
A killer whale prefers cold, coastal waters, yet live in every ocean in the world. Orcas have been spotted at both poles and the equator. Some are known for their love of traveling and have been reported traveling long distances as a pod or group of whales. One pod traveled from Alaska to central California in one season. That is a distance of nearly 1,200 miles.
3. They Live In Large Pods
A group of orcas is called a pod. This family group can have as few as five to as many as one hundred killer whales. They usually average around forty. The more aggressive and the more a group travels, the lower the number of animals within a pod. There is a hierarchy within these pods, much like other animal groups. Their groups are female dominant, and they show assertiveness by slapping their tails, head-butting, and even biting.
Although pods are a group that travels together, there is often a more substantial group referred to as a clan. A clan refers to a group of pods that share a similar dialect in their communication with one another. A clan often share a matriarchal ancestor of even farther-reaching ancestry.
4. They Are Very Intelligent
Due to their high intelligence and ability to be trained, they are often stars of many shows at aquariums. Through studying dolphins, a close cousin of the killer whale, all dolphins, including orcas, have spindle cells in their brains. These cells were previously only found in humans, elephants, and apes, all of which are considered highly intelligent mammals.
Like humans, dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors, which shows they are one of the few creatures who show some self-awareness. Killer whales are much like other dolphins and capable of communicating with one another. Some even argue that they have a language. Scientists have worked hard to see if they can decipher the language.
5. They Communicate Through Underwater Sounds
Killer whales, just like their dolphin cousins, communicate through underwater sounds with one another. Each pod has distinctive noises, so whales in one pod can sense if another whale is part of its group. They use these sounds to help travel underwater. They can tell, even in the darkest parts of the sea, where items are by how quickly their noises bounce back. They also communicate with one another, which helps them be more effective hunters.
6. Orcas Have the Most Varied Diet of All Marine Mammals
These massive creatures are carnivores, yet have a very diverse diet. They enjoy seals, sea lions, fish, squid, seabirds, and even whales! Their teeth are nearly four inches long, allowing them to dine on most any meat. Some sailors used to call this creature the "killer of whales" since they would even eat these large animals, which may be why it mistakenly received its name killer whales, despite being in the dolphin family. These massive creatures have been seen eating leopard sharks, great white sharks, and moose that swim between islands.
Some believe they received their name because of them killing people, but this is not true. They do not prey on humans. There are no recorded attacks on humans in the wild, although there have been some in captivity. These attacks were not to eat them, but for other reasons.
7. Killer Whales Hunt Similarly to a Pack of Wolves
Orcas are very cunning in the capture of their prey. In the Antarctic, they have been seen working as a group to make such large splashes that seals get washed off icebergs, so they can more easily catch their prey. These massive beasts have been spotted in Argentina, throwing themselves on ice to capture sea lions that are resting there, showing their cunningness.
Within the orca species, they find there are two types of family groups. One is considered a resident pod, and they tend to be less aggressive in their hunting habits. Transient pods, on the other hand, work together to hunt, much like wolves, and are very aggressive while hunting.
8. Weigh Up to 6 Tons and as Long as a School Bus
These dolphins are known for their massive size. They weigh up to six tons and are nearly as long as a school bus at 16-32 feet long. Males tend to be larger than females. The largest recorded male was 32 feet long and 10,000 pounds. The largest female orca was only 28 feet and 7,500 pounds, still quite large for an orca. An average female is somewhere between 16 and 19 feet long, while the average male is between 19-23 feet long. Both the largest killer whales subspecies and the smallest both live in the Antarctic.
9. Orcas Live Between 35-100 Years
These animals are not considered endangered by the IUCN and are very plentiful. The scientific community often debate on how long these mammals live. Some say as long as one hundred years, while others say only 50. Some calculate by looking at the growth layers in their teeth. These records may indicate they live as short as 35 years. Since orcas do not replace once they lose their teeth, some feel this is an accurate reflection of their lifespan.
This lifespan is cut short for nearly half of all killer whales. Some findings have shown that most do not even survive to six months old. Many die of many human-like diseases such as Hodgkin's disease, heart disease, and respiratory disease.
10. Adolescent Females Help Raise Babies
Since orcas are such social creatures, they often rely on one another for hunting and even raising their babies. Adolescent females are often seen caring for the other young in a pod. Mothers usually are pregnant for seventeen months and give birth every three to ten years. A baby is born at 8.5 feet long and nearly 300 pounds. Calves or baby orcas nurse in spurts several times an hour for only five to ten-second intervals both during the day and at night. They will nurse until they are a year old. At eleven weeks, about the same time their teeth appear, they begin to accept solid foods from their mother.
These magnificent creatures are very plentiful and roam throughout the entire world. They are very distinct in their appearance and capture the attention of humans, not only at aquarium shows but also in the wild.
- "Are Whales Intelligent?" Whale Facts. July 09, 2015. Accessed September 12, 2018. https://www.whalefacts.org/are-whales-intelligent/. Bradford, Alina. "Orcas: Facts About Killer Whales." LiveScience. November 20, 2014. Accessed September 12, 2018. https://www.livescience.com/27431-orcas-killer-whales.html.
- "Orca (Killer Whale)." National Geographic. June 15, 2017. Accessed September 12, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/o/orca/.
- SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. "Killer Whale." Animals: Explore. Discover. Connect. Accessed September 12, 2018. https://seaworld.org/en/animal-info/animal-infobooks/killer-whale/.
Questions & Answers
Could you give a description of Pilot Whales?
Pilot whales are the second-largest animal in the dolphin family. Only the killer whale is more massive. They, like all other dolphins, are very intelligent. They have a rounded head, that is more pronounced among males, and can protrude up to four inches over the lower jaw. They are usually black or coal grey. The males are about twenty feet in length, while the females are generally only sixteen. The males weigh three-ton, whereas females weigh typically about half of that.
© 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz