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Killer whale

Épaulard

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Killer whale

Facts about the killer whale

Family: Delphinidae
Length: 7 to 9 m
Weight: 4,000 to 8,000 kg
Sexual maturity: 8 years (male), 14 years (female)
Lifespan: 35 to 60 years

  • Rounded body with black and white skin
  • White spot behind each eye
  • White belly and underside of tail
  • Wide and rounded flippers
  • Tall and pointed dorsal fin

Known also as the orca, the killer whale (Orcinus orca) is a toothed whale and the largest member of the dolphin family. It is found throughout the world, notably around New Zealand, the Strait of Gibraltar, Argentina as well as in Canada off Vancouver Island.

Pacific populations

ÉpaulardThe coastal areas of British Columbia are home to three distinct orca communities: resident, transient and offshore. The resident and transient populations inhabit coastal areas, while offshore populations range from California to Alaska.

 

Swift and spectacular

On average, the killer whale swims at 6 to 10 km/h. When hunting, it can propel its powerful body at speeds up to 45 km/h. This great dolphin is impressive to behold, in particular when executing above-water acrobatics or swimming backwards. The animal can project its blow up to 4 metres in the air.

Fin and fluke

On the male, the dorsal fin is triangular and can reach 2 m in length. The female’s smaller dorsal fin is curved toward the rear. The tail, or fluke, is large and rounded and averages 2.4 m in width. The killer whale’s dives last from three to ten minutes.

Strong family ties

The killer whale’s kinship structure, including family bonds and mutual cooperation, is uncommon in the animal world. A female leads the clan, and individuals continually remain in contact with each other. A pod of orcas can include up to several dozen members, comprised of calves, juveniles and adults. On occasion, multiple pods join together.

High mortality rate

ÉpaulardThe killer whale cow gives birth to a calf about once every five years. Most births occur during winter months. The calf, born after a gestation period of 17 months, weighs about 180 kg and is over 2 m long at birth. While it can feed itself after its first year, the mother may continue to nurse her calf up to the age of two. Almost half of orca newborns die in the first six months of life.

Complex calls

Killer whales use highly-developed vocalizations to communicate with each other. Their repertoire includes whistles, whines, clicks and squeaks. Each individual has a distinct vocal signature and each pod uses a dialect of its own. They also use sonic waves in a process called echolocation to navigate and locate prey.

Apex predator

The killer whale is a great predator at the top of the food chain. It has a highly varied diet, ranging from seabirds to seals to large whales. Resident killer whales prefer fish, while transient whales feed primarily on marine mammals.

Strategic hunter

For killer whales, hunting is a family activity where strategy varies according to situation. When feeding on a school of fish, the group coordinates its charge with vocalizations. To capture larger prey, such as a seal or sea lion, they lurk silently in the vicinity, then strike by surprise. Once the orcas have chosen their prey, they isolate it, then exhaust it before making a meal of it.

Threats

ÉpaulardWhile the killer whale has no natural predator, it has suffered from the effects of pollution and climate change, as well as overfishing, which reduces the availability of prey. Water pollution, in addition to causing illness, also harms the whales’ ability to reproduce.

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Links
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