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All Creatures,

Episode 95: Awed by Orcas, Part I

June 04, 2019

By far this is one of the most incredible species we have covered to date. The Orca (Orcinus orca) is a favorite of many throughout the world, but just how amazing they are will astound you. This will be a 2-part podcast because these animals deserve it. There are so many amazing facts and incredible research, that even two podcasts do not do them justice.

In Part I we cover the basics of Orca physiology, but even more incredibly, all the different ecotypes. Behavioral research is showing these animals have developed specific culture to their specific ecotype. In Part II we discuss this in more depth, but enjoy an introduction to a special animal, the Orca.

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Please considering supporting us at Patreon HERE. This episode was initially going to be a Patreon only release, but after some discussion, we just could not put this species behind a paywall. The story of the Orca needs to be told and heard.

Orca Description

Whales evolved nearly 50 million years ago along the Indian subcontinent. The Mesonychids, a wolf-like animal with hooves, began to live in the water. Eventually, this animal evolved into the many species of whales we have today.

Orcas are technically not a “whale,” but rather belong to the family Delphinidae, or Oceanic Dolphins. Today, there are over 35 species of Oceanic Dolphins, with the Orca being the largest. This family emerged about 11 million years ago, and the closest relative to today’s Orca died out about 250,000 years ago.

Here is where it gets incredibly interesting. Scientists believe there might be separate species of Orcas, and they have been divided out into 10 separate ecotypes. Which basically means, different forms of a species occupying a separate habitat. Each ecotype for Orcas is divided between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Northern Hemisphere Ecotypes

  • Resident Orcas- living mainly along coastlines these are found from Southern California up to Alaska. These are fish specialists and we discuss in the podcast about the Southern Resident population along the Northwestern U.S. coast and how they are critically endangered.
  • Bigg’s Orcas- named after the scientist who helped usher in modern Orca research, Dr. Michael Biggs. These are a transient type Orca that means they range out into deeper oceanic waters. Their range is from Southern California up to the Arctic Circle. They specialize in hunting other mammals, seals, whales and others.
  • Offshore Orcas- not much is known about these Pacific Orcas since they range out into the deep ocean.
  • North Atlantic Type I- a smaller sized Orca that lives off Iceland, Norway and Scotland. They are generalist eaters but have been seen eating fish like mackerel, herring, and other fish.
  • North Atlantic Type II- larger Orcas that specialize in hunting other mammals, Minke Whales, Narwhals, and seals.

Southern Hemisphere

  • Type A- some of the largest Orcas that live all along the southern oceans. They primarily hunt Minke Whales.
  • Type B (large)- they are also called “packed ice” Orcas, as they hunt along the Antarctica ice. These whales are iconic for their wave washing technique style of hunting. We will cover hunting strategies in much more detail in part II. They eat seals, penguins among other prey.
  • Type B (small)- these are smaller and look a bit different from the other types. They have been seen hunting penguins specifically and most likely eat other prey.
  • Type C- seen off Antarctica and are fish specialists.
  • Type D- the most astounding, rare Orca. Their physiology is unlike any other Orca, having a large bulbous forehead, smaller saddle patch, smaller eye patch and other phenotypical differences. While elusive, a mass stranding in New Zealand in the 1950s first clued scientists into this ecotype. Recently, research has spotted and studied this specific ecotype of Orca.

What astounds us, and should you, is all these ecotypes do not interact with the other ecotypes. There is evidence each one has a separate dialect and they do not interbreed or interact in any way. In a sense, they are their own tribe. We go into this in much more detail in Part II.

Orca Facts

Orcas age has been reported to be up to 30 years for males, but can live up to 50 or 60 years old. Females are thought to live about 50 years but has been reported to be up to 90 years old. However, the only study published on ages only studied the Southern Resident Orca population off British Colombia, Canada. These whales were persecuted for many years, often shot and killed by fisherman. Thus, the pods overall health is called into question and more data is needed to verify and validate this report.

The largest male Orca was reported to be 32 feet (10 m) long and weigh an estimated 11 tons (10,000 kg). The largest female Orca was reported to be 28 feet (8.5 m) long and weigh an estimated 8 tons (7500 kg). Of course, this will depend on ecotype as many averages are slightly smaller.

 Conservation Status

The IUCN states the Orca is data deficient. This means despite these animals being studied, we do not have enough data to make a conclusion on their conservation status. Some estimates are there may be as many as 50,000 Orcas in the world. We do know certain ecotypes, like the Southern Resident population are critically endangered and suffering.

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