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Killer Whale -- A Name That Suits

The recent death of Dawn Brancheau at Orlando's Sea World Park at the jaws of Tilikum, a 30 year old male killer whale, shocks the sensibilities of those that view killer whales as intelligent but gentle giants. Many call them 'orcas' rather than killer whales because it sounds friendlier. 

Biologists, on the other hand, continue to call them killer whales because it so aptly describes their wild nature. They are top predators that, other than humans, are the only species capable of coordinating a successful kill of the largest animal on earth, the blue whale.

Killer whales are a cosmopolitan species found in every ocean worldwide, but they are different at every location they have been studied. One major difference is that at some locations killer whales feed exclusively on fish (e.g., salmon or herring) and others feed exclusively on marine mammals (seals, whales, dolphins, sea otters, etc.). Regardless, they are known to cooperate and coordinate their hunts in ways rarely seen in the animal kingdom. Killer whales are nothing short of being exquisite and creative hunters. In the Antarctic, killer whales regularly examine ice flows for their seals, leave, recruit their fellow pod-members, create a wave to wash the seals off the flows and can deftly skin them nearly whole for consumption in ways any taxidermist or furrier would envy. In Patagonia and the Crozet Archipelago, they beach themselves to catch seals, risking being stranded in the process. They coordinate attacks on large whales and share the spoils with the entire pod. Killer whales are very competent at ‘sneak attacks.’ They will stay submerged, breathe quietly or not use their echolocation to avoid detection. They share food, whether fish or mammal, and are clearly dedicated to each other.

Tilikum was taken from the waters off of Iceland in 1983, when he was estimated to be about 2 years old. He would have been close to, but not yet fully weaned at that age. The Icelandic killer whales feed predominantly on herring. They have distinctive techniques for cooperatively corralling and feeding on herring schools. Tilikum would not have learned to hunt on his own. Regardless of questions we have about his life in captivity and destiny, like Keiko, Tilikum cannot be returned to the wild. Millions of dollars were spent to return Keiko (star of "Free Willy") to his native seas, but despite great effort, he was utterly dependent on humans. He has no family, no culture, no real-world skills to survive.

Tilikum is the largest killer whale in captivity at over 6 tons and 22 ft. But killer whales live for decades, over 60 years and there are some indications they can live into their 80s. The fish-feeding killer whales tend to stay in their natal pods for life. That is mother and son have a life-long bond, extending many decades beyond weaning. Daughters stay as well, but if the pod gets very large, they may eventually split and raise their young in their own pod. Matings occur between pods during occasional encounters, so even though the family stays together for life, fathers play no role in raising their offspring. In mammal-eating killer whales, the pods can sometimes be smaller because cooperative hunting and sharing is more efficient in smaller packs. In this case, it seems that still, the son will stay and the elder daughter(s) will leave to start her own pod.

We can speculate all we want about why Tilikum did what he did. There were two lethal incidents before the tragedy of Dawn Brancheau. I have no doubt she loved and cared for Tilikum dearly. I have never met a trainer who had anything but deep passion for the animals entrusted to their care. But how do they view us? We have evolved in completely different environments. Our affinity for killer whales and other dolphins can be partly attributed to our recognition of their intelligence and sociability. They look after each other the way families do. But we are not part of that family. We see them differently somehow than other predators, such as white sharks or even spotted hyenas. They look ‘happy’ and ‘friendly’ regardless of what runs beneath. We forget that they are called killer whales for a reason and there is nothing warm and cuddly about that.

Addendum: Just to clarify, Orcinus orca is the scientific name, where Orcinus is the genus and orca is the species. Scientists generally refer to taxa by their genera in the shorthand, not the species name. For example, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are referred to as Tursiops. Spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) are called Stenella. Rhesus macaques are called Macaca, not mulatta and chimpanzees are called Pan, not troglodytes. Using higher level taxonomic references (usually at the family level) are also common (felid, canid, hominid, delphinid, etc.) Even the false killer whale, Pseudorca crassidens, is called Pseudorca, not crassidens. "Orca" remains a notable exception. No other dolphin or whale is referred to this way. There is much in a name and how it is used.

Janet Mann, Ph.D. is a professor of biology at Georgetown University.