10 Incredible Killer Whale Facts

Written by Jennifer Gaeng
Published: July 13, 2022
© Tory Kallman/Shutterstock.com
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Orcas (Orcinus orca), commonly known as killer whales, are warm-blooded, air-breathing aquatic mammals. As apex predators, orcas hunt penguins, fish, sea lions, and seals. Interested in learning more? Let’s explore 10 incredible facts about killer whales!

1. Killer Whales Are Not Actually ‘Whales.’

Killer whale with open mouth.
Killer whales are the largest dolphins in the world.

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

Despite the incorrect label “killer whales,” they are the largest dolphins in the world and belong to the Delphinidae family, which also includes pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins. It’s believed that sailors who witnessed orcas hunting whales initially referred to them as “whale killers,” a term that eventually morphed to “killer whales.”

2. Killer Whales Have Complex Social Structures

Fastest Sea Animal: Killer Whale
Orcas are well known for having complicated social lives.

©Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock.com

Orcas are well known for having complicated social lives. Some live their entire lives in pods where everyone is descended from a matrilineal ancestor. Some group their matrilineal, or mother-line, descendants into pods that include several generations of family members. Others create smaller, temporary groupings, which often consist of a mother and her two children. Then there are the traveling males, who never join a pod.

3. Killer Whales Are Highly Intelligent

Killer whales develop close-knit social groupings, have their language, have amazing memories, and teach one another hunting techniques. They have sophisticated hunting methods and the ability to communicate. They live in most of the oceans on the planet, from the equator to the poles.

Orcas are highly clever, sociable mammals that have long provided entertainment for visitors to marine parks by putting on displays. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that orcas do not perform well in captivity. They have developed the ability to swim up to 40 miles per day while training and looking for food.

4. Killer Whales Have Specific Dialects

The language of the Southern resident killer whales is so complex that they have three different dialects, one for each of the three pods (J, K, and L), each with distinct vocalizations. Clicks, whistles, and pulsing calls are the three noises used by orcas to communicate. Amazingly, several orca groups ‘speak’ various dialects. Dialect differences can occasionally be as significant as those between Japanese and English.

5. Killer Whales Really Are “Killers.”

Killer whales are well-known for being highly intelligent hunters, despite not being whales.

©Donald LeRo – Public Domain by National Science Foundation

Killer whales are killers and are well-known for being highly intelligent hunters, despite not being whales. They frequently cooperate to hunt marine mammals that are much larger than themselves in pods of up to 40 individuals (including whales).

This indicates that nothing else hunts them because they are at the top of the food chain. Killer whales have been free to develop into fantastic predators because they are not under any pressure to protect themselves against predators.

6. Killer Whales Can Live As Long As Humans

In the wild, males can live up to 60 years, and females can live up to 100 years. However, they rarely survive more than 10 years in captivity. Male orcas can live up to 60 years in the wild on average, compared to 46 years for females (maximum 80-90 years). Not counting the 30 calves that were stillborn or miscarried, at least 170 orcas have perished in captivity.

7. Female Killer Whales Experience Menopause

Three animals only—humans, short-finned pilot whales, and orcas—experience menopause on Earth. Menopause in female orcas, who can live up to 90 years, has long been a mystery. There may be a reason, according to a recent study. One of the few mammals known to experience menopause is the orca.

8. Killer Whales Use Echolocation

Killer whales use echolocation to assess an object’s size, shape, structure, composition, speed, and direction.

©qingqing/Shutterstock.com

The auditory system is the killer whale’s main sensory organ. It is a highly evolved system with biological echolocation or sonar capabilities. Killer whales use echolocation to assess an object’s size, shape, structure, composition, speed, and direction. They can use their clicking noises as sonar, like many other cetaceans. According to one research, orcas are so skilled in echolocation that they can recognize the species of salmon they prefer.

9. Orcas Can’t Smell

We are reasonably certain killer whales cannot smell because they lack the smelling organs and even the portion of the brain that is responsible for this sensation. All toothed whales lack olfactory lobes in their brains and olfactory nerves, proving they are odorless. Since killer whales are air-breathing mammals that spend most of their time underwater, their sense of smell would be largely inactive.

10. Killer whales Sleep With One Eye Open

killer whales swimming side by side
Killer whales sleep with one eye open and only half of their brains active.

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

Orcas are unable to totally sleep since they must surface to breathe. They sleep with one eye open and only half of their brains active. Because they must breathe freely to stay afloat, orca whales sleep with only half of their brains active. They must consciously ascend to the surface to breathe on occasion. To keep water out, they must always maintain their blowhole, a flap of skin that they open and close to breathe, closed.


The Featured Image

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) breaching.
Orca, or Killer Whale (Orcinus orca), breaching the water.
© Tory Kallman/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

A substantial part of my life has been spent as a writer and artist, with great respect to observing nature with an analytical and metaphysical eye. Upon close investigation, the natural world exposes truths far beyond the obvious. For me, the source of all that we are is embodied in our planet; and the process of writing and creating art around this topic is an attempt to communicate its wonders.

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