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Killer Whale

KILLER WHALE (Orcinus orca)
Image adapted from Wikipedia
Original image by Robert Pittman
This one is going to be a little more biased than usual because the killer whale was my favourite animal up until I was six and some asshole kid at school told me they were "stupid", crushing my self-esteem and love of Free Willy in one fell swoop. After that, my favourite animal for a long time was grey wolves, the killer whales of the land. But, deep down, I still harbour a special place in my heart for these big glorified dolphins.

Appearance

Killer whales are known for their distinctive and cool black and white look. Nobody says it, but in a lot of ways they really rock the goth aesthetic. Orcas from different parts of the world can be differentiated by their colour pattern, and humans can recognize individuals within groups by their unique markings. That's pretty neat!

They're also big fucking animals. For some reason, probably because most people's experience of orcas, no matter how removed, is captive animals, they seem less dangerous than they are. But a full-grown male orca can grow up to 9.8 metres long (32 feet in freedom units). They toss around 150 kg (~330 lb) seals like I toss a bag of donuts into my shopping cart. The whale trainers at Seaworld or whatever other real-life Jurassic World-level clusterfuck waiting to happen must have balls and/or vaginas of solid fucking steel OR the peace of mind that comes from emotionally and psychologically crippling a powerful animal until it is no longer a threat to you.

Points: 0.5/1 for not yeeting their captors into the fucking sea

Behaviour

Despite what that shitty fuckass kid, Brandon, in my 1st grade class said, orcas are incredibly intelligent. According to the 1977 documentary Orca: The Killer Whale, about an orca that hunts and kills a guy for revenge, they are more intelligent than humans. As spurious as that film may be, a lot of actual research has gone into studying the intelligence of toothed whales, including killer whales.

Orcas have been observed stranding themselves on purpose in order to catch seals, but there is also evidence that they do this to teach younger family members how to hunt, and just for kicks. Though it doesn't seem that special to a human, learning from other group members, and doing things purely for fun, are restricted pretty exclusively to the most intelligent social animals like wolves and apes.

As well, orcas are one of a handful of non-human animal species that can pass the "mirror test" - this means, essentially, that they are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Again, this seems like not a big deal to our human minds, but it suggests that they are conscious and aware of themselves as individuals. Granted, the mirror test is not the be-all and end-all of intelligence testing. Some animals that have demonstrated self-awareness on other cognitive tests have failed the mirror test, and some animals (like ants) that, theoretically have nervous systems too small and too simple to possibly be self aware, have passed. Then again, who knows what the fuck ants know, am I right?

Points: 1/1

Distribution

The orca population on the west coast of North America is the best studied, giving the impression that BC has a monopoly on killer whales, but they are actually found everywhere there is ocean. They're not super picky about water temperature, and go wherever there is food. So disruptions to prey migration caused by warming oceans will merely change the orcas' hunting grounds. And, while localized fuck ups like the Exxon Valdez oil spill may be absolutely devastating for orca populations, they aren't likely to wipe the entire species the fuck out.

Points: 1/1

Ecology

As apex predators, killer whales can have a very profound influence on any ecosystem they are a part of. In a literal textbook example of food web cascades and keystone species that anybody who's taken a university-level biology class has heard no less than 500 times, the hunting habits of orcas indirectly affected kelp growth in the North Pacific. It goes like this: since the 1980s, orcas off the coast of Alaska started eating sea otters because the seal and whale populations were dropping off. Because orcas were eating the otters, the otters weren't eating sea urchins, so the sea urchin population boomed and they gobbled up all of the kelp. Isn't ecology interesting.

Orcas also hunt other top predators, including sharks specifically to get to their nutrient rick livers. People go on about Megalodon, which is extinct as fuck, meanwhile orcas are going around "us[ing] force applied to the pectoral fins of each shark to rupture the pectoral girdle and thereby access the liver" (Engelbrecht et al 2019) like Hannibal Lector.

Points: 1/1

Evolution

Even though they are called "killer whales", killer whales belong to the family Delphinidae, meaning they are technically dolphins. That's a big old disappointment because whales are majestic as fuck and dolphins are a bunch of yappy Flipper-ass motherfuckers. But, to be fair, Delphinidae belongs to a group called Odotoceti, AKA, toothed whales, so while orcas may technically be dolphins, dolphins are technically whales.

Points: 0/1 for taxonomic fuckery

Life History

Female fertility peaks at age 20 and drops off around age 40, but female orcas can live to age 50 and beyond. This makes orcas one of the only animals on the planet that has post-menopausal females living in family groups. Family groups are "matrilinear", meaning that they consist of a female, her kids, her daughters' kids, and so on. Orcas also do something called "alloparenting" - that is, taking care of another individual's offspring, with everybody helping out to look after everybody else's babies. Orca social groups are matriarchal utopias based on taking care of family and brutally killing other marine creatures, sort of like the commune in the Wicker Man remake only minus the bees. If only I'd been born a killer whale.

Points: 1/1

Interaction with Humans

Orcas have been enormously significant to human culture and religion since forever, most notably for indigenous peoples all around the Arctic circle. There's something profoundly compelling and powerful about these animals to inspire human creativity and reverence for millennia, and that might be because they're like us in so many ways. The Lummi people of west coast North America call them "people that live under the water", recognizing their human-parallel intelligence long before anybody cut open their brains or tried the mirror test.

In Western culture, the human fascination with orcas has been perverted into economic exploitation. Nevertheless, this is one species I actually have some hope for because I think that the killer whale programs at places like Seaworld only exist because of humanity's collective love for these animals. With awareness about orca intelligence and welfare on the rise, places which abuse killer whales for entertainment and profit are becoming a thing of the past.

Points: 1/1

Final Score: 5.5/7
Fuck that stupid kid, orcas are fucking awesome and I love them

Further Reading

  • Actman J. 2016. Exxon Valdez oil spill devastated killer whales. National Geographic.
  • American Cetacean Society: Orca (Killer Whale)
  • Delfour F, Marten K. 2001. Mirror image processing in three marine mammal species: killer whales (Orcinus orca), false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens), and California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). Behavioural Processes. 53(3): 181-190
  • Duin J. 2018. A Native American tribe demands the return of its spiritual relative - an orca. Religion News Service.
  • Engelbrecht TM, Kock AA, O'Riain MJ. 2019. Running scared: when predators become prey. Ecosphere. e02531. Open Access
  • Guinet C. 1991. Intentional stranding apprenticeship and social play in killer whales (Orcinus orca). Canadian Journal of Zoology. 69: 2712-2716
  • Marino L. 2011. Cetaceans and primates: convergence in intelligence and self awareness. Journal of Cosmology. 14.
  • Matkin CO, Saulitis EL, Ellis GM, Olesiuk P, Rice SD. 2008. Ongoing population-level impacts on killer whales Orcinus orca following the 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. MEPS. 356: 269-281
  • NOAA: Killer Whale
  • Pachniewska A. List of animals that have passed the mirror test. Animal Cognition
  • Reece et al. 2011. Campbell Biology 9th Edition.
  • Rollman H. 1999. Religion in Newfoundland and Labrador. Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador.
  • Transient orca punts a seal 80 feet into the air near Victoria, BC [Video]

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