Science & Tech

Scientists think orcas might be getting smarter as they show frightening new behaviours

Scientists think orcas might be getting smarter as they show frightening new behaviours
Killer whale rips rudder off boat in straight of Gibraltar
Dan Kriz/ Reliance Yacht Management/ TMX

As if orcas weren’t frightening enough, experts think they are getting even smarter as they have started to learn some terrifying new behaviours.

The whale species, commonly known as killer whales, is an apex predator that has learned to adapt its hunting methods to a variety of different prey.

In March 2019, researchers were stunned when they witnessed the first documented case of a pod of orcas working as a team to kill one of the largest animals on the planet, a blue whale.

The gruesome incident took place on the coast of southwestern Australia as experts watched as a dozen orcas bit chunks out of the adult blue whale, slowly wearing it down until it finally died an hour later. While it may have been the first recorded case, it has not been the last.

Additionally, a small population of orcas on the coast of Spain and Portugal have become fans of ramming and damaging boats, sometimes causing enough destruction to sink them. Elsewhere, orcas have been seen abducting baby pilot whales and tearing the livers out of sharks that later wash up on shore.

Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington and the nonprofit Wild Orca explained toLive Science: “These are animals with an incredibly complex and highly evolved brain. They've got parts of their brain that are associated with memory and emotion that are significantly more developed than even in the human brain.”

But, while the actual anatomy of the animals’ brains hasn’t changed, their ability to learn is what is making orcas smarter than ever before.

They implement what is known as social learning, where younger members of the pods observe and learn hunting methods from the adults, particularly the dominant matriarch, who themselves, are always learning.

Josh McInnes, a marine ecologist at the University of British Columbia, explained: “This behaviour may be being shared between individuals, and that's maybe why we're seeing an increase in some of these mortality events.”

But, while experts think they are getting smarter, they also think it may be leading to the breakup of large pods of orcas.

Michael Weiss, a behavioural ecologist and research director at the Center for Whale Research in Washington state, said: “Their social bonds get weaker because you can't be in a big partying killer whale group if you're all hungry and trying to search for food.”

Sign up to our free Indy100 weekly newsletter

How to join the indy100's free WhatsApp channel

Have your say in our news democracy. Click the upvote icon at the top of the page to help raise this article through the indy100 rankings.

The Conversation (0)