Advertisement

Killer Whales: Behavior, Social Organization, and Ecology of the Oceans’ Apex Predators

  • John K. B. FordEmail author
Chapter
Part of the Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals book series (EBEMM)

Abstract

The killer whale—the largest of the dolphins and the top marine predator––has a cosmopolitan distribution throughout the world’s oceans. Although globally it could be considered a generalist predator with a diverse diet, it is deeply divided into ecotypes, many of which have distinct foraging strategies involving only a narrow range of prey species. These ecotypes, which often exist in sympatry, are believed to arise from culturally driven dietary specializations that develop within matrilineal social groups and are transmitted among matriline members and across generations by social learning. Specializations are maintained by behavioral conformity and social insularity of lineages, which result in reproductive isolation and, ultimately, genetic divergence of ecotypes. Ecotypes have distinct patterns of seasonal distribution, group size, social organization, foraging behavior, and acoustic activity that are related to the type of prey being sought. Sophisticated cooperative foraging tactics have evolved in some ecotypes, and prey sharing within matrilineal social groups is common. Remarkable behavioral and demographic attributes have been documented in one well-studied ecotype, including lifelong natal philopatry without dispersal of either sex from the social group, vocal dialects that encode genealogical relatedness within lineages, and multi-decade long post-reproductive periods of females. Cultural traditions of killer whales, including foraging specializations, can be deeply rooted and resistant to change, which may limit the ability of ecotypes to adapt to sudden environmental variability.

Keywords

Orcinus orca Orca Ecological specialization Cultural traditions Matrilineal society Foraging tactics Dialects Menopause 

Notes

Acknowledgment

Many thanks to John Durban, Eve Jourdain (Norwegian Orca Survey) and Jared Towers for kindly allowing use of their photographs.

References

  1. Baird RW, Dill LM (1996) Ecological and social determinants of group size in transient killer whales. Behav Ecol 7:408–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baird RW, Whitehead H (2000) Social organization of mammal-eating killer whales: group stability and dispersal patterns. Can J Zool 78:2096–2105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baird RW, McSweeney DJ, Bane C, Barlow J, Salden DR, Antoine LRK, LeDuc RG, Webster DL (2006) Killer whales in Hawaiian waters: information on population identity and feeding habits. Pac Sci 60:523–530CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barrett-Lennard LG (2000) Population structure and mating systems of northeastern Pacific killer whales. Ph.D. dissertation. University of British Columbia, VancouverGoogle Scholar
  5. Barrett-Lennard LG, Ford JKB, Heise KA (1996) The mixed blessing of echolocation: differences in sonar use by fish-eating and mammal-eating killer whales. Anim Behav 51:553–565CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Barrett-Lennard LG, Matkin CO, Durban JW, Saulitis EL, Ellifrit D (2011) Predation on gray whales and prolonged feeding on submerged carcasses by transient killer whales at Unimak Island, Alaska. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 421:229–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bigg MA (1982) An assessment of killer whale stocks off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Report of the International Whaling Commission 32:655–666Google Scholar
  8. Bigg MA, Olesiuk PF, Ellis GM, Ford JKB, Balcomb KC (1990) Social organization and genealogy of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington state. Report of the International Whaling Commission 12:383–405Google Scholar
  9. Brent LJ, Franks DW, Foster EA, Balcomb KC, Cant MA, Croft DP (2015) Ecological knowledge, leadership, and the evolution of menopause in killer whales. Curr Biol 25:746–750CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Connor RC, Wells R, Mann J, Read A (2000) The bottlenose dolphin: social relationships in a fission-fusion society. In: Mann J, Connor RC, Tyack P, Whitehead H (eds) Cetacean societies: field studies of whales and dolphins. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 91–126Google Scholar
  11. Deecke VB, Ford JKB, Slater PJ (2005) The vocal behaviour of mammal-eating killer whales: communicating with costly calls. Anim Behav 69:395–405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Deecke VB, Nykänen M, Foote AD, Janik VM (2011) Vocal behaviour and feeding ecology of killer whales Orcinus orca around Shetland, UK. Aquat Biol 13:79–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Duignan PJ, Hunter JE, Visser IN, Jones GW, Nutman A (2000) Stingray spines: a potential cause of killer whale mortality in New Zealand. Aquat Mamm 26:143–147Google Scholar
  14. Durban JW, Fearnbach H, Burrows DG, Ylitalo GM, Pitman RL (2017) Morphological and ecological evidence for two sympatric forms of type B killer whale around the Antarctic Peninsula. Polar Biol 40:231–236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Esteban R, Verborgh P, Gauffier P, Giménez J, Foote AD, de Stephanis R (2016) Maternal kinship and fisheries interaction influence killer whale social structure. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70:111–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Filatova OA, Samarra FI, Deecke VB, Ford JK, Miller PJ, Yurk H (2015) Cultural evolution of killer whale calls: background, mechanisms and consequences. Behaviour 152:2001–2038CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Foote AD, Newton J, Piertney SB, Willerslev E, Gilbert MTP (2009) Ecological, morphological and genetic divergence of sympatric North Atlantic killer whale populations. Mol Ecol 18:5207–5217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Foote AD, Morin PA, Pitman RL, Ávila-Arcos MC, Durban JW, van Helden A, Sinding MHS, Gilbert MTP (2013) Mitogenomic insights into a recently described and rarely observed killer whale morphotype. Polar Biol 36:1519–1523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Foote AD, Vijay N, Ávila-Arcos MC, Baird RW, Durban JW, Fumagalli M, Gibbs RA, Hanson MB, Korneliussen TS, Martin MD, Robertson KM (2016) Genome-culture coevolution promotes rapid divergence of killer whale ecotypes. Nat Commun 7:11693CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ford JKB (1991) Vocal traditions among resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in coastal waters of British Columbia. Can J Zool 69:1454–1483CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ford JKB (2014) Marine mammals of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum handbook, mammals of BC, vol 6. Royal BC Museum, Victoria, p 460Google Scholar
  22. Ford JKB, Ellis GM (1999) Transients: mammal-hunting killer whales of British Columbia, Washington, and Southeastern Alaska. UBC Press, Vancouver, p 96Google Scholar
  23. Ford JKB, Ellis GM (2006) Selective foraging by fish-eating killer whales Orcinus orca in British Columbia. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 316:185–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ford JKB, Ellis GM (2014) You are what you eat: ecological specializations and their influence on the social organization and behaviour of killer whales. In: Yamagiwa J, Karczmarski L (eds) Primates and cetaceans: field research and conservation of complex mammalian societies. Springer, New York, NY, pp 75–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ford JKB, Ellis GM, Barrett-Lennard LG, Morton AB, Palm RS, Balcomb KC III (1998) Dietary specialization in two sympatric populations of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in coastal British Columbia and adjacent waters. Can J Zool 76:1456–1471CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ford JKB, Ellis GM, Balcomb KC (2000) Killer whales: the natural history and genealogy of Orcinus orca in British Columbia and Washington, vol 102, 2nd edn. UBC Press, VancouverGoogle Scholar
  27. Ford JKB, Ellis GM, Durban JW (2007) An assessment of the potential for recovery of west coast transient killer whales using coastal waters of British Columbia. Research document 2007/088, Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, OttawaGoogle Scholar
  28. Ford JKB, Ellis GM, Olesiuk PF, Balcomb KC (2010) Linking killer whale survival and prey abundance: food limitation in the oceans’ apex predator? Biol Lett 6:139–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ford JKB, Ellis GM, Matkin CO, Wetklo MH, Barrett-Lennard LG, Withler RE (2011) Shark predation and tooth wear in a population of northeastern Pacific killer whales. Aquat Biol 11:213–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ford JKB, Reeves RR (2008) Fight or flight: antipredator strategies of baleen whales. Mammal Rev 38(1):50–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ford MJ, Parsons KM, Ward EJ, Hempelmann JA, Emmons CK, Hanson MB, Balcomb KC, Park LK (2018) Inbreeding in an endangered killer whale population. Anim Conserv.  https://doi.org/10.1111/acv.12413 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Foster EA, Franks DW, Mazzi S, Darden SK, Balcomb KC, Ford JKB, Croft DP (2012) Adaptive prolonged postreproductive life span in killer whales. Science 337:1313–1313CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Guinet C (1991) L’orque (Orcinus orca) autour de l’Archipel Crozet comparaison avec d’autres localités. Rev Ecol (Terre Vie) 46:1991Google Scholar
  34. Guinet C (1992) Comportement de chasse des orques Orcinus orca autour des Îles Crozet. Can J Zool 70:1656–1667CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Guinet C, Bouvier J (1995) Development of intentional stranding hunting techniques in killer whale (Orcinus orca) calves at Crozet Archipelago. Can J Zool 73(1):27–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Guinet C, Domenici P, De Stephanis R, Barrett-Lennard L, Ford JKB, Verborgh P (2007) Killer whale predation on bluefin tuna: exploring the hypothesis of the endurance-exhaustion technique. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 347:111–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Guinet C, Tixier P, Gasco N, Duhamel G (2014) Long-term studies of Crozet Island killer whales are fundamental to understanding the economic and demographic consequences of their depredation behaviour on the Patagonian toothfish fishery. ICES J Mar Sci 72:1587–1597CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hoelzel AR (1991) Killer whale predation on marine mammals at Punta Norte, Argentina; food sharing, provisioning and foraging strategy. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 29:197–204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hoelzel AR, Moura AE (2016) Killer whales differentiating in geographic sympatry facilitated by divergent behavioural traditions. Heredity 117:481–482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hoelzel AR, Hey J, Dahlheim ME, Nicholson C, Burkanov V, Black N (2007) Evolution of population structure in a highly social top predator, the killer whale. Mol Biol Evol 24:1407–1415CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Iñíguez, M., Tossenberger, V.P., and Gasparrou, C. 2005. Socioecology of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in northern Patagonia, Argentina. Unpublished paper to the IWC Scientific Committee, 9 p. Ulsan, Korea, June 2005. (SC/57/SM5)Google Scholar
  42. Ivkovich T, Filatova OA, Burdin AM, Sato H, Hoyt E (2010) The social organization of resident-type killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Avacha Gulf, Northwest Pacific, as revealed through association patterns and acoustic similarities. Mammalian Biology-Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde 75:198–210CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Jourdain E, Vongraven D, Bisther A, Karoliussen R (2017) First longitudinal study of seal-feeding killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Norwegian coastal waters. PLoS One 12(6):e0180099CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kassen R (2002) The experimental evolution of specialists, generalists, and the maintenance of diversity. J Evol Biol 15:173–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lacy RC, Williams R, Ashe E, Balcomb KC III, Brent LJ, Clark CW, Croft DP, Giles DA, MacDuffee M, Paquet PC (2017) Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans. Sci Rep 7:14119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lopez JC, Lopez D (1985) Killer whales (Orcinus orca) of Patagonia, and their behavior of intentional stranding while hunting nearshore. J Mammal 66:181–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Matkin CO, Saulitis E (1994) Killer whale (Orcinus orca): biology and management in Alaska. Prepared for US Marine Mammal Commission by North Gulf Oceanic Society, Homer, AKGoogle Scholar
  48. Matkin CO, Testa JW, Ellis GM, Saulitis EL (2014) Life history and population dynamics of southern Alaska resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). Mar Mamm Sci 30:460–479CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Miller PJO, Shapiro AD, Tyack PL, Solow AR (2004) Call-type matching in vocal exchanges of free-ranging resident killer whales, Orcinus orca. Anim Behav 67:1099–1107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moore SE, Francine JK, Bowles AE, Ford JKB (1988) Analysis of calls of killer whales, Orcinus orca, from Iceland and Norway. Rit Fiskideildar 11:225–250Google Scholar
  51. Morin PA, Archer FI, Foote AD, Vilstrup J, Allen EE, Wade P, Durban J, Parsons K, Pitman R, Li L, Bouffard P, Abel Nielsen SC, Rasmussen M, Willerslev E, Gilbert MTP, Harkins T (2010) Complete mitochondrial genome phylogeographic analysis of killer whales (Orcinus orca) indicates multiple species. Genome Res 20(7):908–916CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Morin PA, Parsons KM, Archer FI, Ávila-Arcos MC, Barrett-Lennard LG, Dalla Rosa L, Duchêne S, Durban JW, Ellis GM, Ferguson SH, Ford JKB, Ford MJ, Garilao C, Gilbert MTP, Kaschner K, Matkin CO, Peterson SD, Robertson KM, Visser IN, Wade PR, Ho SYW, Foote AD (2015) Geographic and temporal dynamics of a global radiation and diversification in the killer whale. Mol Ecol 24:3964–3979CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Moura AE, Kenny JG, Chaudhuri RR, Hughes MA, Reisinger RR, De Bruyn PJN, Dahlheim ME, Hall N, Hoelzel AR (2015) Phylogenomics of the killer whale indicates ecotype divergence in sympatry. Heredity 114:48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Olesiuk PF, Ellis GM, Ford JKB (2005) Life history and population dynamics of northern resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in British Columbia. Research Document 2005/045. Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, Ottawa, ONGoogle Scholar
  55. Pitman RL, Durban JW (2012) Cooperative hunting behavior, prey selectivity and prey handling by pack ice killer whales (Orcinus orca), type B, in Antarctic Peninsula waters. Mar Mamm Sci 28:16–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pitman RL, Durban JW, Greenfelder M, Guinet C, Jorgensen M, Olson PA, Plana J, Tixier P, Towers JR (2011) Observations of a distinctive morphotype of killer whale (Orcinus orca), type D, from subantarctic waters. Polar Biol 34(2):303–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Pitman RL, Ensor P (2003) Three forms of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Antarctic waters. J Cetacean Res Manag 5(2):131–140Google Scholar
  58. Pitman RL, Fearnbach H, Durban JW (2018) Abundance and population status of Ross Sea killer whales (Orcinus orca, type C) in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica: evidence for impact by commercial fishing? Polar Biol 41:781–792CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Riesch R, Barrett-Lennard LG, Ellis GM, Ford JKB, Deecke VB (2012) Cultural traditions and the evolution of reproductive isolation: ecological speciation in killer whales? Biol J Linn Soc 106:1–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Saulitis E, Matkin C, Barrett-Lennard L, Heise K, Ellis G (2000) Foraging strategies of sympatric killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Mar Mamm Sci 16:94–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Scammon CM (1874) The marine mammals of the north-western coast of North America: described and illustrated; together with an account of the American whale-fishery. JH Carmany, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  62. Similä T, Ugarte F (1993) Surface and underwater observations of cooperatively feeding killer whales in northern Norway. Can J Zool 71:1494–1499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Similä T, Ugarte F (1999) Patterns in social organisation and occurrence among killer whales photo-identified in northern Norway. European Research on Cetaceans 12:220. In: Evan PGH, Parsons ECM (eds) Proceedings of the twelfth annual conference of the European Cetacean Society, Monaco, 20–24 Jan 1998. Artes Graficas Soler, ValenciaGoogle Scholar
  64. Similä T, Holst JC, Christensen I (1996) Occurrence and diet of killer whales in northern Norway: seasonal patterns relative to the distribution and abundance of Norwegian spring-spawning herring. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 53:769–779CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Simon M, Ugarte F, Wahlberg M, Miller L (2006) Icelandic killer whales Orcinus orca use a pulsed call suitable for manipulating the schooling behaviour of herring Clupea harengus. Bioacoustics 16:57–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Strager H (1995) Pod-specific call repertoires and compound calls of killer whales, Orcinus orca Linnaeus, 1758, in the waters of northern Norway. Can J Zool 73:1037–1047CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Stredulinsky EH (2016) Determinants of group splitting: an examination of environmental, demographic, genealogical and state-dependent factors of matrilineal fission in a threatened population of fish-eating killer whales (Orcinus orca). MSc thesis. University of Victoria, BCGoogle Scholar
  68. Tavares SB, Samarra FI, Miller PJ (2017) A multilevel society of herring-eating killer whales indicates adaptation to prey characteristics. Behav Ecol 28:500–514CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Ternullo R, Black N (2002) Predation behavior of transient killer whales in Monterey Bay, California. In: Fourth international Orca symposium and workshop. CEBC-CNRS, Villiers en Bois, pp 156–159Google Scholar
  70. Tixier P, Gasco N, Guinet C (2014) Killer whales of the Crozet Islands: photoidentification catalogue 2014. Villiers en Bois: Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé-CNRS, vol 10, p m9. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268978107_Tixier_et_al_CROZET_KILLER_WHALES_PHOTO_ID_CATALOGUE_2014_POSTER Google Scholar
  71. Tosh CA, De Bruyn PJ, Bester MN (2008) Preliminary analysis of the social structure of killer whales, Orcinus orca, at subantarctic Marion Island. Mar Mamm Sci 24:929–940Google Scholar
  72. Towers JR, Ellis GM, Ford JKB (2015) Photo-identification catalogue and status of the northern resident killer whale population in 2014. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 3139:vi + 75Google Scholar
  73. Visser IN (2000) Orca (Orcinus orca) in New Zealand waters. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Auckland, New ZealandGoogle Scholar
  74. Visser IN, Smith TG, Bullock ID, Green GD, Carlsson OG, Imberti S (2008) Antarctic Peninsula killer whales (Orcinus orca) hunt seals and a penguin on floating ice. Mar Mamm Sci 24:225–234CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Whitehead H, Ford JKB (2018) Consequences of culturally-driven ecological specialization: killer whales and beyond. J Theor Biol 456:279–294CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Wright BM, Stredulinsky EH, Ellis GM, Ford JKB (2016) Kin-directed food sharing promotes lifetime natal philopatry of both sexes in a population of fish-eating killer whales, Orcinus orca. Anim Behav 115:81–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Yano K, Dahlheim ME (1995) Behavior of killer whales Orcinus orca during longline fishery interactions in the southeastern Bering Sea and adjacent waters. Fish Sci 61:584–589CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Yurk H, Barrett-Lennard L, Ford JKB, Matkin CO (2002) Cultural transmission within maternal lineages: vocal clans in resident killer whales in southern Alaska. Anim Behav 63:1103–1119CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries and Oceans CanadaNanaimoCanada

Personalised recommendations