whales play with food

Looking for answers to your most burning killer whale questions? You’ve come to the right place. Here, we go beyond the basics to bring you the facts you’ve been looking for. From menopause and mating to poop and playing, here are some of the coolest killer whale facts around.

Why do killer whales go through menopause?

Menopause is probably the last thing that comes to mind when you think about killer whales. But the fact is, whales go through menopause just like humans and the reason is surprisingly human-like.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like a waste of time for an animal to live past its reproductive lifespan. After all, if you can’t pass on your genes to the next generation, what’s the point of sticking around?

According to an article in Discover Magazine, it’s all about the “grandmother hypothesis.”  When older women are infertile, “they can still ensure that their genes cascade through future generations by caring for their children, and helping to raise their grandchildren. It seems that mothers can indeed boost their number of grandchildren by stepping out of the reproductive rat-race as soon as their daughters join it, becoming helpers rather than competitors.”

Killer whales are remarkably similar in the fact that they stay within the pod they were born into. Older whale mothers have plenty of chances to help their children and grandchildren, and research actually shows that this maternal presence does help her offspring survive, even if they are full-grown adults.

What does killer whale poop look like?

Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, said it best: “It looks like a combination of algae and snot. It varies in color but it’s very mucousy.”

What’s so great about that, you ask? Well for one thing, killer whale poop (and other whale poop) fights climate change. It’s so rich in iron that it encourages the growth of phytoplankton, which absorbs carbon and carries it to the seafloor when it dies. It’s estimated that these plankton carbon traps remove nearly 400,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year.

Plus, whale poop tells us a lot about the health of our whale populations. From a single sample, researchers can measure toxins and the diet of the animal, and can even determine the whale’s species, gender and identity. But the trick is finding it! Whale poop is only around for about 30 minutes before it sinks or disperses, so researchers have enlisted the help of scat-sniffing dogs to find the poop before it’s too late.

Why do killer whales play with their food?

Killer whales are notorious for playing with their prey. They flip dolphins out of the water, toss sea lions in the air, and gang up to wash seals off icebergs.

While seemingly playful, this behaviour might actually be a strategic hunting tactic. Killer whales often hunt at very high speeds, so sometimes it’s easier to stun the prey before biting into it. Another reason could be that it’s not easy for orcas to open their mouths when swimming so quickly. As John Ford, a whale biologist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told Wired Magazine, the “drag on its jaw would be pretty horrific. So they tend to just ram them, and in doing so, the prey often do go flying in the air.”

In the case of the poor seal on the iceberg, that was a training exercise.  The whales worked together to create a giant wave that washed the seal off the ice. But instead of gobbling the seal up, one of the whales carefully placed it back on the ice. Then, the whales did it all over again. Practice makes perfect!

Can killer whales mate with dolphins?

Although an orca/dolphin hybrid has never been known to happen, there’s no reason why it couldn’t. Orcas are actually the largest species of dolphin so it’s certainly possible.

The closest example of this kind of interspecies breeding is a “wolphin,” which is the extremely rare offspring of a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. False killer whales are also large dolphins, but are much smaller than orcas. Males reach a maximum length of 20 feet and approximately 2 tons.

The first recorded wolphin was born at Tokyo SeaWorld but died 200 days later. While there are reports of wolphins living in the wild, there is only one living confirmed wolphin, at Sea Life Park in Hawaii.

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