Killer whales (or orcas) are some of the smartest creatures in the sea. Orca intelligence is so impressive that they can hunt collaboratively and in unique ways (even with humans) and they have complex social relationships — but we already knew all that. What the new study has shown is that orcas are smart that they can learn the language of another species and use it to their advantage.
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Killer whales are actually a species of dolphins found in all oceans, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas. They have extremely diverse carnivorous diets and can adapt to what the local environment can provide. Killer whales also have complex societies that rival those of elephants and higher primates, such as humans.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that orcas are so smart. Killer whales have the second-heaviest brains among marine mammals, after only sperm whales. We already know that they teach their offspring and to imitate other creatures. They also have advanced communication skills. They pass learned behaviors from generation to generation — a form of animal culture.
They’re also playful, curious, and just like us, they exhibit a wide range of emotions. Researchers have documented orcas displaying joy, grief, and even empathy — a trait that underpins their strong social bonds.
This capacity for profound emotional expression is tied to a part of the brain known as the limbic system, responsible for emotions in mammals. Intriguingly, orcas and other cetaceans have an extra part in their limbic system—the paralimbic lobe— which could be responsible for processing complex social and emotional behavior.
Killer whales are also excellent problem solvers and are capable of using tools. They’ve been spotted using sticks or stones to manipulate their environment, and sometimes, they play with ice like humans play with snowballs.
In fact, orcas are so smart that many scientists have argued that it is not humane to keep orcas (as they are also called) in captivity.
“The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties,” a 2001 Cambridge study concluded.
But perhaps their linguistic skills are the most impressive cognitive abilities of killer whales.
Orcas possess a sophisticated communication system, complete with dialects that vary between different pods (or groups). Each pod uses unique vocal patterns, much like our own regional accents, enabling intricate social interaction and coordination.
Dolphins do the same thing. The problem is that orcas have figured out a way to use that to their advantage.
In this new study, orcas who were familiar with bottlenose dolphins started making similar sounds to the dolphins, with more clicks and fewer longer calls; basically, they started to mimic the bottlenose dolphin language. This could indicate that orcas have their own language and dialects, University of San Diego graduate student Whitney Musser and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute senior research scientist Dr. Ann Bowles published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America suggest. More proof is needed, however.
“There’s been an idea for a long time that killer whales learn their dialect, but it isn’t enough to say they all have different dialects so therefore they learn. There needs to be some experimental proof so you can say how well they learn and what context promotes learning,” Bowles said.
Considering orcas have different dialects and even express different cultural behavior from one population to another, it seems entirely reasonable (and remarkable) that they are able to learn the language of another cetacean. The fact that they have similar vocal chords also helps in this aspect. However, the fact that they are larger makes it more difficult for them to vocalize.
But why do they do this? It’s still not clear. Researchers are currently more interested in how they do it.
“It’s important to understand how they acquire [their vocalization patterns], and lifelong, to what degree they can change it, because there are a number of different populations on the decline right now,” Bowles said. “And where killer whales go, we can expect other small whale species to go — it’s a broader question.”
The Killer whales of Eden, Australia
Another story that is not linked to the above study but illustrates how adaptable orcas really are goes back to an extraordinary behavior reported in Australia. The killer whales of Eden, Australia were a group of killer whales known for their co-operation with human hunters of other whale species. Basically, for one orca generation (about 90 years, from 1840 and 1930) they were seen near the port of Eden in southeastern Australia.
The killer whales would find target whales, shepherd them into Twofold Bay, and then alert the whalers to their presence and often help to kill the whales. The whalers would come in, kill the whales, and then allow the orcas to feed off the whales before the whalers brought the whales in.
The leader of the orca group was called Old Tom; he would alert the human whalers to the presence of a baleen whale in the bay by breaching or tailslapping at the mouth of the Kiah River.
The unique behaviour of killer whales in the area was recorded in the 1840s by whaling overseer Sir Oswald Brierly in his extensive diaries. It was discussed in many scientific circles and described in many scientific studies. While co-operative hunting between humans and wild cetaceans exists in other parts of the world, the relationship between whalers and killer whales in Eden appears to be unique. What’s interesting is that the initiative for this cooperation came from the orcas – not from humans.
It’s not clear how they came up with this idea or how they developed this behavior, but it highlights once again that killer whales are able to develop long-standing relationships with other species – even some as different as humans.
The emotions and intelligence of an orca
Another story, or rather series of stories that’s very poignant is that of orcas deliberately hitting boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal. Over 60 incidents have been reported, with the orcas essentially ramming into the boats. The behavior was performed by multiple individuals in multiple instances, so it’s not an isolated event.
Even more surprisingly, the behavior seems to be spreading, with orcas in the North Sea, off the Scottish coast, imitating the same behavior. So what’s going on?
Researchers believe the orcas are imitating the behavior of an older and traumatized orca nicknamed white Gladis. Orcas are a matriarchal society where experienced females share their experience and encourage behaviors in the rest of the population. White Gladis was probably pregnant when she first felt threatened by the boats. Then, after she gave birth, it got worse.
“She went to the boats with this calf, so she preferred to stop the boats rather than keeping her baby safe,” Mónica González, a marine biologist with the Coordinadora para o Estudo dos Mamíferos Mariños, or Coordinator for the Study of Marine Mammals (CEMMA), said in a webinar held June 11.
Females are fiercely protective of their calves, who are completely dependent on their mothers for over two years. The fact that she engages in this behavior while caring for her calf indicates something severe must have happened to leave her traumatized. Potentially, this could be linked to a fishing or sailing boat that injured her.
This regrettable event is yet another testament to orca intelligence and empathy. If anything, this reaction is eerily human. After all, who could blame a traumatized mother for behaving like this?
In response, she began to attack boats, and, due to her position in the group, others followed. It’s a story of imitation, social learning, and the complexity of orca society. But it’s also a tragic reminder of the potential impact we humans have on marine life.
As we marvel how smart orcas are, we’re also reminded of our responsibility.
This understanding necessitates a shift in our interactions with these creatures, particularly in the realms of conservation and wildlife management. As our knowledge of orcas continues to deepen, we must ensure that we adapt our practices to reflect their cognitive complexity and rich emotional lives. This includes protecting their habitats, reducing boat traffic in orca-populated waters, and advocating for their welfare in captivity.
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