The orca whale, sometimes referred to as the killer whale, is a toothed whale belonging to the oceanic dolphin family. They can be found in all oceans and some feed only on fish while others hunt sea lions, seals, walruses, or other large whales. They are considered “apex predators” meaning they lack natural predators.
They are highly social and some populations consist of matrilineal family groups which are the most stable of any animals species, and their sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviors have been described as manifestations of “culture”.
Mothers calve, with usually a single offspring, about once every 5 years. During the first six to seven months of life, 37–50% of all calves die. Weaning begins at about 12 months and completes by the age of two. All male and female killer whale pod members participate in the care of the young. Females breed until age 40, meaning that on average they raise five offspring. The lifespan of wild females averages 50 years, with a maximum of 80–90 years. Wild males live around 29 years on average, with a maximum of 50–60 years.
Orcas are known for their complex societies with only elephants and higher primates such as humans living in comparably complex social structures. Thus, many marine experts have concerns about how humane it is to keep these animals in captive situations. Matriarchal societies such as these live together for their entire lives and because females can reach age 90, as many as four generations travel together and these groups are highly stable.
Depletion of prey species, pollution, oil spills, habitat disturbance caused by noise and conflicts with boats are currently the most significant worldwide threats to the orcas. Captives have vastly reduced life expectancies, on average only living into their 20‘s since captivity bears little resemblance to the wild and being made to perform tricks is not part of orca behavior. Orcas travel up to 100 miles each day and are too big and intelligent to be suitable for captivity. Additionally, captive orcas occasionally act aggressively toward themselves, tank mates, or humans as a result of this stress.
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