Creature Feature: Orcas

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Orcas (Orcinus orca), also known as killer whales, have been in the news recently as the subject of documentaries and new legislation. Let’s get our feet wet and learn more about these magnificent creatures!

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family. Females usually weigh about 3-4 tons, and males can weigh over 6 tons.  Like all dolphins, they have sharp teeth. These animals are highly intelligent and live in socially complex groups known as pods. They hunt cooperatively for prey including fish, squid, and marine mammals. These pods can be as large as 40 orcas.

Orcas live in cold waters, and pods can be resident or transient. Resident pods stay in one area and feed on mostly fish. The Puget Sound resident pods are among the most well-known on the west coast. Transient pods spend their time traveling, and typically hunt marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and whales. Young whales learn hunting strategies from their older female relatives. These strategies are often unique to that particular pod.

Orcas have been kept on display at marine parks around the world since the 1960s . There have always been debates about keeping these large, social mammals in captivity. The recent documentary Blackfish has sparked a new discussion, and even prompted one California lawmaker to introduce legislation aimed at ending the practice. What do you think?







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