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Inside the killer whale matriarchy – TED ed

Inside the killer whale matriarchy by Darren Croft (TED ed). Off the rugged coast of the pacific northwest, pods of killer whales inhabit the frigid waters. Each family is able to survive here thanks mainly to one member, its most knowledgeable hunter: the grandmother.

These matriarchs can live eighty years or more, while most males die off in their thirties. Though killer whales inhabit every major ocean, until recently we knew very little about them. The details of their lives eluded scientists until an organization called the Center for Whale Research began studying a single population near Washington State and British Columbia in 1976.

Inside the killer whale matriarchy - TED ed
Inside the killer whale matriarchy – TED ed

Thanks to their ongoing work, we’ve learned a great deal about these whales, known as the Southern Residents. And the more we learn, the more this population’s elders’ vital role comes into focus. Each grandmother starts her life as a calf born into her mother’s family group, or matriline.

The family does everything together, hunting and playing, even communicating through their own unique set of calls. Both sons and daughters spend their entire lives with their mothers’ families. That doesn’t mean a young whale only interacts with her relatives.

Besides their own special calls, her matriline shares a dialect with nearby families, and they socialize regularly. Once a female reaches age fifteen or so, these meetings become opportunities to mate with males from other groups. The relationships don’t go much beyond mating— she and her calves stay with her family, while the male returns to his own mother.

Until approximately age forty, she gives birth every 6 years on average. Then, she goes through menopause— which is almost unheard of in the animal kingdom. In fact, humans, killer whales and a few other whales are the only species whose females continue to live for years after they stop reproducing.

After menopause, grandmothers take the lead hunting for salmon, the Southern Residents’ main food source. Most of the winter they forage offshore, supplementing salmon with other fish. But when the salmon head towards shore in droves to spawn, the killer whales follow. The matriarch shows the younger whales where to find the most fertile fishing grounds. She also shares up to 90% of the salmon she catches.

With each passing year, her contributions become more vital: overfishing and habitat destruction have decimated salmon populations, putting the whales at near-constant risk of starvation. These grandmothers’ expertise can mean the difference between life and death for their families– but why do they stop having calves? It’s almost always advantageous for a female to continue reproducing, even if she also cares for her existing children and grandchildren.

A couple unique circumstances change this equation for killer whales. The fact that neither sons or daughters leave their families of origin is extremely rare— in almost all animal species, one or both sexes disperse. This means that as a female killer whale ages, a greater percentage of her family consists of her children and grandchildren, while more distant relatives die off.

Whale matriarchy
Whale matriarchy

Because older females are more closely related to the group than younger females, they do best to invest in the family as a whole, whereas younger females should invest in reproducing. In the killer whale’s environment, every new calf is another mouth to feed on limited, shared resources.

An older female can further her genes without burdening her family by supporting her adult sons, who sire calves other families will raise. This might be why the females have evolved to stop reproducing entirely in middle age. Even with the grandmothers’ contributions, the Southern Resident killer whales are critically endangered, largely due to a decline in salmon.

We urgently need to invest in restoring salmon populations to save them from extinction. In the long term, we’ll need more studies like the Center for Whale Research’s. What we’ve learned about the Southern Residents may not hold true for other groups. By studying other populations closely, we might uncover more startling adaptations, and anticipate their vulnerabilities to human interference before their survival is at risk.

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Credit: Darren Croft

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