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Of Orcas and Humans

by Belinda Recio

Shared language, and culture, are by no means limited to humans.

It’s a new year, and who knows what 2018 will bring in terms of changes in technology, medicine, fashion, and other aspects of society. But whatever new advances and trends await us, they are the result of human culture, which is built on the constant exchange of information with one another. Long considered one of the traits that separates us from other animals, culture is no longer seen as exclusively human. Other species behave in ways that suggest they have culture, too, and one of the most interesting is the killer whale, or orca.

Like humans, orcas pass knowledge from one generation to the next. A fascinating example of orca cultural transmission was documented between 1840 and 1930, when a group of orcas regularly appeared in the coastal waters off the town of Eden in southeastern Australia. This particular group became famous for its custom of cooperative whaling. They would find a baleen whale, “herd” it into a nearby bay, and then alert whalers to the vulnerable whale by breaching or tail slapping. The whalers then killed the whale, but they let the orcas feed on it before hauling it away. The opportunistic orcas also fed on the fish and birds that showed up to scavenge.

The first time the orcas cooperated with them the whalers were surprised, but the local aboriginal peoples were not. In fact, they explained to the whalers that orcas loitering near a baleen whale wasn’t coincidental. The orcas in those coastal Australian waters had been helping the indigenous peoples hunt baleen whales for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.

Hunting cooperatively with another species suggests that orcas are smart—and they are. Captive orcas have learned to respond not only to human vocal commands and hand signals, but even to abstract symbols. Orcas also recognize themselves in mirrors (evidence of self-awareness), solve problems, exhibit tool-using behavior, appear to be able to discriminate between numbers and, perhaps most importantly, they have culture. This is why the orcas off the coast of Eden knew how to hunt with humans. Not all orcas hunt with humans. But once the Eden orcas learned to hunt with humans, they passed down their local cultural tradition from one generation to the next, for thousands of years.

Orcas have a matrilineal family structure, which consists of a female, her offspring, and her daughters’ offspring. Female orcas play a central role in orca culture, teaching the younger whales important skills. Interestingly, female orcas stop reproducing in their 30s or 40s, but can live up to 100 years. Living long after reproduction ceases is very unusual. In fact, only three species—humans, pilot whales and orcas—live for any significant length of time after their eggs run out. But orca “grandmothers,”—like human grandmothers—live long after they stop reproducing. Scientists believe that female orcas probably evolved their long postmenopausal lifespan in order to pass on their decades of knowledge to their pod. For example, when food is scarce, it is the grandmothers who help lead the pod to alternative food sources.

A group of matrilines that travel and socialize together is known as a pod. Pods that socialize together are known as a clan. Clans have similar-sounding vocalizations, comparable to a language or dialect. Scientists have observed captive orcas learn another clan’s vocalizations, presumably in an attempt to socialize. They have also witnessed captive orcas living with captive bottlenose dolphins change their vocalizations to match the sounds made by their dolphin tank mates, suggesting that the orcas might have been trying to learn to “speak dolphin.”

As we know from human society, cultural differences can create divisions, and it’s the same with wild orcas, which sometimes choose to “stick with their own kind.”

As we know from human society, cultural differences can create divisions, and it’s the same with wild orcas, which sometimes choose to “stick with their own kind.” For example, “resident” orcas—pods that tend to stay in the same area—prefer to eat salmon; whereas “transient” orcas—pods that swim in the same area as residents, but roam farther afield—prefer to dine on marine mammals. The resident orcas do not socialize with the transient orcas despite spending significant time in the same habitat. Scientists do not know for certain that it is the diet that keeps them apart, but they suspect the lack of socializing between the two groups is due to cultural differences.

Just as culture can divide populations, it can unite them, too. Consider the mysterious “salmon hat” trend. It began when a few orcas off the coast of Washington started carrying salmon on their heads. Before long, the behavior spread throughout the area and the salmon hat “fad” was born. Scientists don’t know why the orcas were carrying salmon on their heads, as it didn’t seem to serve any practical purpose. The fascinating part is that the novel behavior spread the same way that such behaviors spread in human culture: It started with a few trendsetters and suddenly it went viral.

For orcas, like humans, culture is usually beneficial. But sometimes culture—especially when it manifests as clannish behavior—gets a species into trouble. For example, the Salish Sea’s resident orca clan developed a tradition of only eating Chinook salmon. There was nothing unhealthy about the other available fish; they simply stuck to their “custom” of only eating Chinook. Sadly, when Chinook became scarce, instead of eating the perfectly edible sockeye salmon swimming right past them, the orcas went hungry.

As we start a new year, let’s take a lesson from the Salish Sea orcas and remember that although culture can be advantageous, strict adherence to cultural norms isn’t always what’s best—for orcas or for humans. There are times when we need to question rigid, clannish perspectives. And let’s be inspired by the orcas of Eden, who took a chance and reached across the species divide and started cooperating with a species very different from themselves. And it paid off.

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