killer whales


the most interesting facts about killer whales


Killer whales are the most widely distributed mammals, other than humans, according to Sea World. They live in the oceans and seas surrounding most coastal countries. They adapt very well to any climate. For example, they can live in the warm waters near the equator or the icy waters of the North and South Pole regions. Orcas are more likely to be found at higher latitudes and near the shore, though. [Gallery: Russia's Beautiful Killer Whales]

These animals do not stay in one area and have been documented traveling long distances. For example, one study found a group of orcas traveling all the way from the waters off of Alaska to those near central California, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. This is a distance of more than 2,000 kilometers (more than 1,200 miles).


Orcas are very social and live in groups called pods, which usually have up to 40 members, according to National Geographic. There are two different kinds of pods: A resident pod is less aggressive and tends to prefer fish. Transient pods act much like wolf packs and are much more aggressive. They hunt marine mammals by working together. [Video: Killer Whales Caught in Stunning Drone Footage]


Orcas are apex predators, at the top of the food chain. No other animals (except for humans) hunt orcas. Killer whales feed on sea birds, squid, octopuses, sea turtles, sharks, rays and fish. They also eat most marine mammals, such as seals and dugongs. The only exceptions are river dolphins and manatees, according to the IUCN. Killer whales have also been reported to eat moose, according to Sea World.

Killer whale and Weddell seal.
Credit: Robert Pitman/NOAA

Orcas use many different techniques to catch prey. Sometimes they beach themselves to catch seals on land, meaning they jump from the water onto land. Orcas will also work together to catch larger prey or groups of prey such as schools of fish.

Killer whales also work together to take care of the young in a pod. Often, young females will help the mothers care for young orcas


The orca calf playing with a plastic bag.
Credit: Center for Whale Research

A female killer whale will give birth every three to 10 years, to one offspring at a time. The gestation period usually lasts for around 17 months. A baby orca is called a calf, and they are about 8.5 feet (2.6 m) long and 265 to 353 lbs. (120 to 160 kg) at birth, according to Sea World. Calves nurse for 5 to 10 seconds at a time, several times an hour. This goes on day and night until the calf has mature enough. It is weaned at a year old. Orcas can live from 50 to 100 years.


According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), orcas are in the same family as dolphins and pilot whales. The taxonomy of orcas is:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Infrakingdom: Deuterostomia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
  • Superclass: Tetrapoda
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Subclass: Theria
  • Infraclass: Eutheria
  • Order: Cetacea
  • Suborder: Odontoceti
  • Family: Delphinidae
  • Genus & species: Orcinus orca

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes that recent genetic studies have led many cetacean biologists to hypothesize that multiple species or subspecies of killer whales exist worldwide.

Three distinct forms, or ecotypes, of killer whales are recognized: resident, transient (or Bigg's) and offshore. The ecotypes differ in dietary needs, behavior patterns, social structures and habitat preferences, as well as in genetics, size and shape, according to the NOAA's Office of Protected Resources. And the IUCN notes, "The taxonomy of this genus is clearly in need of review, and it is likely that O. orca will be split into a number of different species or at least subspecies over the next few years."

Conservation status

According to the IUCN, the orca's population is unknown, and therefore the organization cannot label the animal's conservation status, though some populations are protected, according to the NOAA.

Civilizations around the world kill orcas for various reasons. Some people kill them for food, while fishermen see the animals as competition that must be killed to protect the fish population. Contaminants in the ocean and seas, such as chemicals and oil, also pose a threat to orcas

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Orcas: Facts About Killer Whales

by Alina Bradford, Live Science Contributor

Date: 20 November 2014 Time: 09:50 PM ET

The orca whale's large size and strength make it among the fastest marine mammals, able to reach speeds in excess of 30 knots (about 34 mph, or 56 kph).
CREDIT: Orca image via Shutterstock

Orcas are often called killer whales. Though they don't typically attack humans, this name is still well-chosen due to the animal's ability to take down large marine animals, such as sea lions and whales. In fact, orcas will prey on almost any animal they find in the sea, in the air over the water or along the coastline. To hunt, killer whales use their massive teeth, which can grow up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) long.


Orcas are known for their long dorsal fin (the fin on the animal's back) and black-and-white coloring. Just behind the dorsal fin is a patch of gray called a "saddle" — because it looks like a riding saddle. An orca's body is cylindrical and tapers at both ends to form an aerodynamic shape.

According to National Geographic, orcas are considered the largest species of the dolphin family. They weigh up to 6 tons (5,443 kilograms) and grow to 23 to 32 feet (7 to 9.7 meters). That is almost as long as a school bus. The largest orca ever recorded was 32 feet (9.8 m) long, according to Sea World.


Killer Whales InfoBook


Adult male killer whales are larger overall than their female counterpart including features such as pectoral flippers, dorsal fins, tail flukes, and girth.

The largest recorded male killer whale was 9.8 m (32 ft.) in length and weighed 10,000 kg (22,000 lb.) The largest recorded female was 8.5 m (28 ft.) and weighed 7,500 kg (16,500 lb.).

Data from Icelandic killer whales (North Atlantic type 1) indicate that an average-size female is 4.9 to 5.8 m (16-19 ft.).

Data from Icelandic killer whales (North Atlantic type 1) indicate that an average-size male is 5.8 to 6.7 m (19-22 ft.) long.

Data from Icelandic killer whales (North Atlantic type 1) indicate that an average-size male is about 5.8 to 6.7 m (19-22 ft.) long, while females averaged 4.9 to 5.8 m (16-19 ft.) long.

Killer whale sizes vary significantly between different ecotypes.Male Antarctic type A killer whales can reach lengths of 9.2 m (30 ft.) making them the largest known killer whales.The smallest killer whale ecotype is the Antarctic type C killer whales in which adult females average 5.2 m (17 ft.) and adult males average 5.6 m (18 ft.) in length and can reach a maximum of 6.1 m (20 ft.).

At SeaWorld, average size for adult males is 6.6 m (21.7 ft.) Two of the largest adult male killer whales at SeaWorld weigh 4,340 kg (9,570 lb.) and 5,380 kg (11,860 lb.).

At SeaWorld, average size for females is 5.5 m (18 ft.) and 2,442 kg. (5,384 lb.) SeaWorld's adult female whales range in weight from 2,313 kg (5,100 lb.) to 3,719 kg (8,200 lb.).

Body Shape

The general body shape of a killer whale is roughly cylindrical but tapering at both ends. This characteristic fusiform shape is quite energy efficient for swimming. Compared to other body shapes, this body shape creates less drag (the opposing force an object generates as it travels through water).


Killer whales are black and white, with a gray patch called a "saddle" or a "cape" on the back, just behind the dorsal fin.

The large areas of black and white are distinctly separate.

The entire dorsal (top) surface and pectoral flippers are black except for the gray saddle.The ventral (bottom) surface, lower jaw, and undersides of the tail flukes are mostly white. The undersides of the tail flukes are fringed with black.An oval, white "eyespot" is just above and slightly behind each eye.

The size and shape of a killer whale's white areas and gray saddle vary greatly among ecotypes.Conspicuous eye and saddle patches may help killer whales in groups coordinate social interactions, hunting, and swimming in formation.

The distinctive coloration of killer whales is a type ofdisruptive coloration, a pattern that obscures the outline of an animal by contradicting the animal's body shape. In the flickering, filtered sunlight of the sea, other animals may not recognize a killer whale as a potential predator.

Killer whales are countershaded: the dorsal (top) surface is darker than the ventral (underneath) surface. When viewed from above, a countershaded animal blends in with the darker ocean depths. When viewed from below, the lighter belly surface blends in with the brighter sea surface.

While extremely rare, white killer whales have been observed. In British Columbia, one such animal was diagnosed with Chédiak-Higashi Syndrome, an inherited fatal disorder characterized by loss of pigmentation and not surviving to adulthood. Others appear to be full-grown adults and the cause of their white coloration is unknown.

Pectoral Flippers

A killer whale's forelimbs are adapted for swimming. A killer whales uses its rounded, paddlelike pectoral flippers to steer and, with the help of the flukes, to stop.

Pectoral flippers have the major skeletal elements of the forelimbs of land mammals, but they are shortened and modified. The skeletal elements are rigidly supported by connective tissue.

Blood circulation in the pectoral flippers adjusts to help maintain body temperature.

The pectoral flippers of male killer whales are proportionately larger than those of females. A large male killer whale may have pectoral flippers as large as 2 m (6.5 ft.) long and 1.2 m (4 ft.) wide. A female's pectoral flippers are significantly smaller.

The pectoral flippers of a male killer whale are proportionately larger than those of females'.

A killer whale's pectoral flipper contains 5 digits much like the fingers on a human hand.


Each lobe of the two-lobed tail is called a fluke. Flukes are flat pads of tough, dense, fibrous connective tissue, completely without bone or cartilage.

A large male killer whale may have tail flukes measuring 2.75 m (9 ft.) from tip to tip.

Longitudinal muscles in the back one-third of the body (both above and below the spine) move the flukes up and down.

Like the arteries of the flippers, the arteries of the flukes are surrounded by veins to help maintain body temperature.

Flukes are flattened pads of tough, dense, connective tissue with no bones.

Dorsal Fin

Like the flukes, the dorsal fin is made of dense, fibrous connective tissue, without bones or cartilage.

Dorsal fin size and shapes vary between ecotypes.

The dorsal fin of a male killer whale is proportionately larger than that of a female. In adult males, the dorsal fin is tall and triangular. Reaching a height of up to 1.8 m (6 ft.) in a large adult male, it is the tallest dorsal fin of all cetaceans. In most females, the dorsal fin is slightly falcate (backward-curving) and smaller — about 0.9 to 1.2 m (3-4 ft.) tall.

As in the flukes and the flippers, arteries in the dorsal fin are surrounded by veins to help maintain body temperature.

Like the keel of a boat, the dorsal fin may help stabilize a killer whale as it swims at high speeds, but a fin is not essential to a whale's balance.

Dorsal fin irregularities in killer whales observed in ocean are rarely seen, however, some have irregular-shaped dorsal fins: they may be curved, wavy, twisted, scarred, or bent. This may occur in male or female dorsal fins.

About 4.7% of wild adult male killer whales around British Columbia were observed with dorsal fin abnormalities. For the observed wild Norwegian population, the rate was 0.57%. But of the adult male killer whales that have been photo-identified in the waters around New Zealand, 23% (7 out of 30) had collapsing or bent dorsal finds.

It is not fully understood why wild killer whale populations develop abnormal dorsal fins or why the observed killer whale males around New Zealand had such a high rate of dorsal fin abnormalities compared to other studied populations. Researcher theories include these observed abnormalities may be attributed to age, stress, and/or attacks from other killer whales. However, as killer whales at SeaWorld tend to spend more time at the surface working with their trainers, and many of the males have slumped or bent dorsal fins, it seems probable that time spent at the surface may be a contributing factor.


A killer whale has an indistinct rostrum (snoutlike projection).

A single blowhole on top of the head is covered by a muscular flap. A killer whale breathes through its blowhole. The blowhole is relaxed in a closed position, and the flap provides a water-tight seal. To open its blowhole, a killer whale contracts the muscular flap.

A killer whale's eyes are on each side of its head, just behind and above the corner of its mouth, and in front of its white eyespot.

A killer whale's eyes are about the same size as the eyes of a cow. Glands at the inner corners of the eye sockets secrete an oily, jellylike mucus that lubricates the eyes, washes away debris, and probably helps streamline the eyes as a killer whale swims.

Ears are small inconspicuous dimples just behind each eye, with no external flaps or pinnae. These small external ear openings lead to reduced ear canals that are not connected to the middle ears.


A killer whale's large teeth are conical and interlocking. Toothed whales have only one set of teeth; they are not replaced once lost.

The number of teeth varies among individuals. There are usually 10 to 14 teeth on each side of each jaw (40-56 teeth total).

A killer whale does not chew its food — instead its teeth are adapted to grasp prey and tear its food into smaller chunks.

Teeth are about 7.6 cm (3 in.) long and about 2.5 cm (1 in.) in diameter.

The teeth of killer whales begin to erupt from several to 11 weeks of age, which corresponds with the time that calves are seen taking solid food from their mothers.

Extensive wear has been noted on the teeth of older individuals. Most adult North Atlantic type 1 killer whales have severely, worn-down teeth, which is consistent with a diet of suctioning up small fishes. Adult offshore killer whales in the Northeast Pacific also have highly worn teeth, likely caused by a diet that includes sharks with highly abrasive skin.


A killer whale's dermis (skin) is smooth. The outer layer continually and rapidly renews itself, and the old skin sloughs off.

The increased skin cell turnover increases swimming efficiency by creating a smooth body surface which reduces drag.


A killer whale's blubber layer lies beneath the dermis and measures from 7.6 to 10 cm (3-4 in.) thick. Blubber is a layer of fat reinforced by collagen and elastic fibers. In general, blubber has a number of important functions:Contributing to a killer whale's streamlined shape, which helps increase swimming efficiency.Storing fat, which provides energy when food is in short supply.Reducing heat loss, which is important for thermoregulation.

Physical Differences in Ecotypes

The five forms of Antarctic killer whales look different and are easier to tell apart.Type A killer whales have a medium-size, horizontal eye patch and have a very faint dorsal saddle. These are the largest killer whale ecotypes.Large type B killer whales have a very large, horizontal eye patch. The small type B killer whale has a slightly narrower and slanted eye patch. Both types have a dorsal saddle, a dorsal cape (dark gray covering on the back), and can have a yellowish cast due to a layer of diatoms on their skin.Type C killer whales have a small, forward-slanting eye patch and a dorsal saddle and often have a yellowish cast due to a covering of diatoms. These are the smallest type of killer whale.Type D killer whales have an extremely, tiny eye patch, a bulbous melon (forehead), and a very faint saddle.

Experts note subtle differences between the resident, transient, and offshore killer whales of the eastern North Pacific Ocean.In general, resident killer whales are larger and have a rounded tip on the dorsal fin, which is falcate (curved back) in adult females and tall and triangular in males. The dorsal saddle may contain some black areas.Transient killer whales tend to be smaller and have a more pointed dorsal fin. The dorsal saddle does not contain any black areas.Offshore killer whales are more similar in appearance to the resident ecotype, although they are smaller than either the residents or transients and they have a faint saddle.

North Atlantic killer whale ecotypes.Type 1 killer whales are much smaller than type 2. They have very distinct white eye patches and a conspicuous saddle.Type 2 killer whales are one of the largest ecotypes, with males reaching 8.5 m (29 ft.) lengths. They have very distinct white patches, a slanted-back eye patch, and a faint saddle.

Photo-Identification of Individual Whales

Of the groups of killer whales studied, researchers have learned to recognize many individual killer whales from photographs, especially photos of the dorsal fin and saddle patch.

Researchers photograph the dorsal fin when the whale rises out of the water to breathe. This action exposes the most markings on the back and dorsal fin. Studying the photos, these researchers recognize subtle differences in whales' body appearance.Researchers identify individuals using many features including dorsal fin shape, nicks in the dorsal fin, relative body size, pigmentation patterns of saddle patches and eye patches, scars, deformities, detail of tail fluke edges, encrustations, blemishes, and rake marks.

Photo-identification is an important research tool for studying various aspects of cetacean biology, including movements, reproduction, behavior, social structure, and population dynamics. Photo-identification helps document the lives of individual whales in considerable detail.

KILLER WHALES (Orcinus orca) - Birth & Care of Young

Birth & Care of Young

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Killer Whales InfoBook


Killer whale gestation length averages 17 months, and ranges from 15.7 to 18 months at zoological parks.

Birth Seasons

Calves are born throughout the year, with no statistical evidence for birth seasons.

However, while males produced sperm throughout the year, peak testosterone and sperm production corresponded to months from March to June in North American zoological facilities.

Specific regions may have peak birth months. For example, in the northeast Pacific Ocean, many calves are born between October and March.


Just one calf is born at a time. Calves are born in the water.

Most deliveries observed have been tail-first, but head-first deliveries also have been observed.

Based on limited data collected from populations at sea and in zoological facilities, a female may bear a calf every 3 to 5 years. In some cases, a female may not have another calf for 10 years.

Most deliveries observed have been tail-first.

Head-first deliveries also have been observed.

Calves at Birth

Size estimates of SeaWorld-born killer whales suggest that newborn calves are about 2.6 m (8.5 ft.) long and 120 to 160 kg (265-353 lb.).

In the first few days after birth, the dorsal fin and tail flukes are flexible and pliable. They gradually stiffen.

The light areas of some young killer whales may be creamy white to pale yellow or tan rather than white. They usually turn white by the end of the first year, though some killer whales retain the yellowish color into adulthood.


Most killer whale calves born at SeaWorld generally nurse for about a year, but may continue to nurse occasionally for as long as two years. This corresponds with observations in the wild.

Fat is an efficient source of energy to drive a calf's high metabolism. Killer whale milk is very rich in fat.The fat content of killer whale milk fluctuates as the calf develops.High-fat milk is an adaptation for calves to be able to quickly build a thick, insulating layer of blubber.

A whale calf suckles from nipples concealed in abdominal mammary slits.

Calves nurse for about 5 to 10 seconds at a time, several times an hour, 24 hours a day.

Calves nurse below water, close to the surface. The mother glides in a horizontal position with her tail arched, and the calf swims on its side with its mouth on the right or left mammary gland.

Killer whale calves observed at SeaWorld began nursing several hours after birth. First successful nursing attempts ranged from 1.8 to 29.3 hours after birth.

Calves nurse for about 5 to 10 seconds at a time, several times an hour, 24 hours a day. Nursing frequency peaks the first day or two following birth, at about 45 minutes total average nursing time. As a calf becomes more adept at nursing and obtains more milk at each feeding, nursing time decreases dramatically to 10 minutes per day or less after three weeks and to 5 minutes or less by 2 months.

At SeaWorld, it's possible that first-time mothers may learn how to nurse their young by observing this behavior in other mother whales. Additionally, trainers teach them how to respond when their calf attempts to nurse.

Calf Development

Most calves grow about 64 cm (25 in.) during their first year, and they can gain about 400 kg (882 lb.). They grow about 53 cm (21 in.) during their second year.

To conserve energy, the calf swims in the slipstream of its mother.

Births at SeaWorld

Killer whales have been born at SeaWorld parks in San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando. SeaWorld's killer whale breeding program is the most successful in the world.

Studying SeaWorld's killer whales, scientists have learned a great deal about killer whale reproductive biology and calf development. The data they've gathered from killer whale calves and their mothers could not have been obtained without close daily interaction and observation.In September 1985 a female killer whale calf was born at SeaWorld Orlando. The calf, named Kalina, thrived and reached adulthood. She is the first killer whale successfully bred, born, and raised in a zoological environment.In February 1993 at SeaWorld San Antonio, Kalina had a calf of her own — the first second-generation killer whale calf born in a zoological park.

To date, more than 30 calves have been successfully born and raised throughout SeaWorld's collection of killer whales.

SeaWorld experts have developed techniques for artificially inseminating killer whales. Artificial insemination (AI) occurs when semen that has been collected from a male is placed into a female's reproductive tract.The first killer whale born as a result of artificial insemination was born at SeaWorld San Diego in September 2001. The male calf was named Nakai.SeaWorld experts developed an intrauterine insemination technique using specialized medical instruments. They also developed a methodology for the collection and storage of viable killer whale semen.Veterinarians monitored daily urine samples to track hormone levels in adult female killer whales. This, combined with ovarian ultrasound examination, indicated when a female was about to ovulate. This information helped experts pinpoint the best time to introduce the semen.

AI successes at SeaWorld require collaboration from SeaWorld veterinarians, killer whale trainers, animal keepers, and laboratory specialists.A critical component of a successful breeding program is maintaining genetic variability. Without AI, this meant transporting whales by plane between the SeaWorld parks, pairing different females with males, and hoping for successful mating. With the development of AI, managing genetic diversity has become easier. Instead of transporting an adult whale, semen samples can be sent from one park to another.

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