Posts Tagged ‘Killer whale’

From the Vancouver Sun:

If whale expert John K.B. Ford has his way, school children one day will study a kind of North Pacific killer whale that preys on warm-blooded creatures — mostly harbour seals and sea lions, but also grey whales and seabirds.

They roam as far north as the Arctic Ocean and are now known as “transients” to distinguish them from fish-eating “resident” killer whales.

Ford and colleagues from Alaska to California want transient killer whales to be declared their own species, and they want them to have a new name: Bigg’s killer whales, in honour of Michael Bigg, the researcher whose observations off British Columbia and Washington state led to the identification of transients and whose mentoring inspired a generation of researchers still uncovering the mysteries of the animal at the top of the marine food chain.

“He was really very much the founding father of modern scientific studies regarding killer whales,” Ford said from his office at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., where he heads West Coast cetacean research for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Paul Wade, a U.S. killer whale expert at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said colleagues have begun using Bigg’s killer whales as the common name for transients in research papers.

“It seems to be catching on,” Wade said.

Work demonstrating that Bigg’s killer whales are a separate species also is progressing, he said, and that could lead to honouring Bigg with a formal scientific name for transients.

Michael Andrew Bigg was born in London in 1939. He moved to British Columbia with his family nine years later. He had a lifelong fascination with predators, Ford said, and for a time was a falconer.

“He was kind of a rare generalist as a biologist,” Ford said. “He was broadly interested in natural history.”

Just out of graduate school in 1970, Bigg was hired as a marine mammal biologist at the Pacific Biological Station. One assignment was an investigation of the status of killer whales, considered dangerous to humans and pests by salmon fishermen. By 1973, aquariums were paying $70,000 for a live killer whale and 48 had been captured for display.

Bigg and colleagues distributed sighting forms to fishermen and other coast residents. His report in 1976 concluded that just 200 to 350 orcas remained along the B.C. and Washington coasts, far fewer than thought, and too few to sustain additional live captures.

He also made a breakthrough that would create the framework for decades of additional research: He determined that individual whales could be identified by pigmentation patterns on the saddle patch at the base of their dorsal fins. That meant researchers could track whales to figure out their diets, family dynamics and communications with other whales.

“It was Mike’s realization that with a good-enough photograph, you could identify even the plainest looking fin without any obvious markings,” Ford said.

Bigg’s formal association with killer whales ended by early 1977. He was reassigned to other marine mammals, including northern fur seals, Ford said, but kept at killer whale research on the side. He had started to distinguish families of resident orcas that he suspected were targeting salmon. More rarely seen were killer whales that Bigg at first suspected were pod outcasts.

They turned out instead to be mammal-eaters. Genetic work on transients followed. Wade collaborated with National Marine Fisheries Service geneticist Phillip Morin and 14 other researchers on a 2011 paper that indicated resident and transient killer whales don’t eat or behave the same ways. They also don’t interbreed.

“The evidence suggests that the transients in particular are quite different than everybody else and probably shared an ancestor about 700,000 years ago,” Morin said from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif.

The scientists say at least three killer whale species likely roam the North Pacific, including offshore orcas that may feed on sleeper sharks, and three in the Antarctic. Killer whales are found in every ocean and DNA samples have been studied from the extreme north and south parts of the globe. Researchers are preparing to analyze samples from tropical and temperate waters, Morin said, to piece together the pattern of evolutionary divergence between types.

“The goal is to then try to compile the genetic data with all of other data — the behavioural, the acoustic, other molecular data, distribution — and come up with a description of killer whales globally, along with our recommendations for which should be species and which should be subspecies, if the data hold up those categories,” Morin said.

I hope that 700,000 year date was determined by something other than mitochondrial DNA. An analysis of a large sample of the genome would be nice. (Jerry Coyne explains why).

I would also like to know how absolute is the assertion that these animals don’t interbreed.

Hybridization between even really distinct species of cetacean is actually pretty common, and I would be surprised if these different types of orca never interbred. Never is one of those words that sets one up for error, for as soon as the thing  that you claim will never happen happens one time, you’re instantly 100 percent wrong.

I still think there is a good case for splitting up orcas into several species. These animals behave very differently from each other. They eat different things, and apparently, there isn’t much gene flow between them.

That would suggest that they are on their way to becoming distinct species, if they aren’t already.

If this taxonomy holds, then we have a good example of sympatric speciation, which is what happens when new species evolve out of common ancestor but share the same geographical range.

Just asimple variances in foraging “culture” has resulted in the development of genetically distinct orca lineages.

And that’s really quite amazing.





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Orcas hunt gray whale


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At Raised By Wolves.

The discussion in the comments is  really good. Christopher from BorderWars (who regularly comments on this blog ) has some really good things to add.

Bottom line: I don’t see how an ethical person of any sort can condone keeping an orca in captivity.


But now I am happy.

Look at the topic being discussed on Yahoo! News.


Have I mentioned how much I hate Fox News?

Let me explain that etymology again.

They aren’t called killer whales because they are whales that kill things. Biologists don’t call them that (although Fox News biologists might). I prefer the term orca or grampus (although grampus also refers to Risso’s dolphin).

They aren’t actually whales. This is actually the largest species of dolphin.

They were called “whale killers,” because that’s what some populations do. They attack the big baleen whales, usually to kill their calves.


Someone reversed the term “whale killer” to “killer whale,” and that’s where we get the name.

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I would like for what he says at the end to not happen.

But my guess is it will.

Killer whale exhibits will be even more popular.

And this really should be a clarion call to seriously talk about ending the captive orca and dolphin industry.

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I find some of the discussion about the killer whale that killed a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando misses a major point.

No matter what method of training has been used on the animal, it is still a wild animal.

Dogs can be trained using all sorts of methods. They will put up with our shit.

Most wild animals will not.

If you think for one minute that you can train a six ton animal with electric goads and whips, I guess you haven’t seen what happens with a lot of elephants that are kept this way. Something like this happens:


The elephant had been shocked and beaten all its life. It decided it that it had had enough.

Because elephants are somewhat prone to  these “rampages,” I’m not so sure elephants belong in captivity either. They are just as intelligent and complex as orcas. Unlike orcas, they don’t leave us alone in the wild. They have a reason to hate us. We kill them for their tusks. We kill them if they raid our crops. We kill them to steal their babies. If an elephant encounters a person on foot in its natural habitat, it is more than likely going to charge. A captive elephant is very likely to go off.

As I noted earlier, wild orcas, for some reason, don’t consider humans to be prey. There is no documented case of a wild orca attacking anyone. If I read the following statement again, I am going to scream: “Well they don’t call them killer whales for nothing.” Actually, they don’t kill people in the wild.

I can’t say the same for captive ones.  These animals might be trained very differently from the way elephants are.

But their lives are so unnatural that their behavior is fundamentally changed. Their lives and their very being are simply out of their normal context.

These animals have much shorter lives in captivity than they do in the wild. I don’t think an an animal whose life is so caught up in sound can live very well in a concrete tank that is has a water filtration system running at full blast.

For an animal that is known to travel 100 miles a day at 3o miles per hour over the open ocean, the tank is little more than a very cruel prison.

In this prison, the animals are going to do things that they wouldn’t normally do.

Do I think for a minute that changing the methods for training killer whales would make them safer?

Absolutely not.

That is because we’re not getting to a question raised by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. In his work Love and Hate, Eibl-Eibesfeldt discusses a badger that he raised in captivity. The badger misbehaves in the house, but every time that Eibl-Eibesfeldt disciplines it, the badger attacks him. However, whenever he did the same to his dogs, the dog s “quickly [learned] to obey.”

Now as I noted a while ago,  Eibl-Eibsfeldt believed that the reason that dogs were so much easier to train is because they are social and form a social rank. European badgers are solitary.

This is nonsense. European badgers are not solitary at all. They live in family groups. Indeed, a typical badger sett has 6 to 8 individuals living in it. However, some family groups may contain as many as 35 badgers. These social groups are know as clans, and these clans have very complex social hierarchies. Eibl-Eibsfeldt was simply wrong about these animals being solitary.

Now, if that part of the argument is wrong, then another part is also at least somewhat dubious. Dogs are not obeying because of their natural history of strict social hierarchy.

If you’ll remember the dog documentary I linked to earlier this week, you’ll recall that the researchers at Eötvös Loránd University kept wolf puppies in the same manner that you’d keep domestic dogs.

The wolves eventually became like Eibl-Eibsfeldt’s  badger. They were unruly. They couldn’t learn the rules of the house. They became possessive of objects.

Now, we all know that wolves have something like a social organization. It is very well studied, although the original framework has been modified a bit.

You’d think that wolves would be very easily trained to not do things.

But they were just like Eibl-Eibsfeldt’s badger.

So it has to be another factor that allows dogs to learn rules and to put up with all of our training methods.

And that other factor is domestication.

Through domestication, dogs have developed certain cognitive skills that allow them to learn rules. They can learn to cooperate with us, and many dogs really want to cooperate with people.

Dogs are also not nearly as likely to respond with aggression when they are challenged as wild animals are.

If you start using some of these dog training methods on wild animals, the chances are much higher that these animals will respond with aggression.

That’s one reason why elephant handling is such a hazardous profession.

Virtually all elephant training methods are  based upon confrontation and force. Yes, they may be like this to each other, but I really don’t think you want an elephant asserting itself over you. My guess is that it won’t be pretty.

And if we adopted these methods for training orcas, I’m absolutely certain that it would do little to curb aggression in this species. In fact, it probably could make things worse.

The reason why orcas are trained using those positive reinforcement methods is really quite simple. There is no other way. You cannot make them do things.

It really doesn’t matter what training methods are being used on these animals. Captivity just isn’t the best place for them.

They’ve not been domesticated. They don’t have the social cognition skills or the desire to cooperate that domestic dogs have.

Even social wild animals can’t be expected to be like dogs.  To get to that same level of domestication, we’d need extensive selective breeding programs. We might be able to produce some genetically tame animals like the Soviets did wit their silver foxes, but if your goal is to produce animals that could one day augment wild populations, breeding for these traits is actually quite detrimental. (I suspect that this may be one reason why Mexican wolves have had such a hard time being reintroduced.)

Of course, orcas aren’t endangered. These animals are being kept in captivity for our entertainment purposes only. Now, that might be fine if these animals remained docile in their captive situation.

But it seems that killer whales don’t.

The best way to prevent killer whale attacks is to ban keeping them in captivity. It really serves no purpose. The education argument is a giant red herring.

We already know that these animals are amazing. I don’t think we have to watch them perform circus tricks to understand that.

Maybe it really is time to Free Willy.

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