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Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

All text on this page is copyright protected: © 2014 Kelvin Aitken.
All rights reserved. Students may use this information for personal research only. Not for commercial use.

Order: Cetacea
Family: Delphinidae
Genus: Orcinus
Species: orca
Taxonomic name: Orcinus orca
Other Common Names: Orca, Blackfish.

The Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) is also known as the Orca. Their common name comes from the experiences of whalers who saw this species killing and feeding on other dolphins and whales.

Killer Whales can be found in all oceans from the tropics to arctic seas, from estuaries and the surf zone to open oceanic waters. Killer Whales have a distinctive and diagnostic colour pattern with a white belly that extends partly up onto the flanks as well as covering the entire throat and chin. A white blaze extends back from behind the eye and a dusky saddle lays across the back behind the dorsal fin. The rest of the body is black. The eye is camouflaged and hard to detect as it blends in well with the skin colour and observers are instinctively distracted by the white blaze behind the eye.

Mature males have a huge triangular dorsal fin, reaching 1.8 m high, which is unusually erect and may have a slight rearwards curve at the tip. Some individuals may have distorted or deformed dorsal fins. Females have a much shorter dorsal fin and, when viewed from a distance at the surface, may be confused with other large toothed whales. The pectoral fins are large, broad and paddle shaped and the tail is usually curved down at the tips.

Calves are born at 2.1-2.4.5 m and grow to 7 m if female and 9.5 m if male.

The size and reputation of the Killer Whale, along with its popularity in oceanariums and movies, give Killer Whales a loyal following. Whale watch charters do good business taking tourists to observe resident pods of Killer Whales in Canada and western Europe. Much research has been done on the orca found in the Georgia Straits and surrounds near Vancouver, Canada. Individuals in resident pods are identified by their markings and scars on the dorsal fin and body. Pods are identified by their sonar calls. Transient individuals and small pods moving through the area are known to feed on dolphins but locals primarily feed on Salmon, squid and reef fish.

This different behavior between pods is even more noticeable on a global scale with feeding techniques varying greatly around the globe depending on local food supplies. Examples of this are the Killer Whales in Patagonia, South America which beach themselves in an effort to catch young seals. In Norway they kill their sardine prey by rounding up schools and stunning them with their powerful tails. Other examples of group co-operation are well documented including attacks on Blue Whales, Gray Whales, dolphins, reef sharks, Hammerhead Sharks and even one recorded attack on a Whale Shark.

One unusual but well recorded association with humans was the co-operation between a male Killer Whale, called Old Tom, and his pod with whalers working the south east coast of Australia. When Humpback Whales were migrating past the bay where the whaling station was situated the male Killer Whale would summon the whalers and lead them out to the passing Humpbacks. As a reward for their help the whalers would feed them with the tongue of the slaughtered whales. This association lasted only as long as the male lived. After his death the pod did not continue this unique association.

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