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Why Orcas Are One Of The Smartest Animals on Earth

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Why Orcas Are One Of The Smartest Animals on Earth

Orcas are one of the most well-known marine species on Earth.

Their very distinctive black and white appearance stand out among the other members of the animal kingdom.

Most of us know orcas as fearless and terrible killer whales, and we rarely think about their wit and incredible intellectual abilities.

But these animals are often misunderstood, and today we will talk about the other side of orcas, the social and intellectual side many people are unaware of.

What are orcas?

First of all, orcas or Orcinus are also known as killer whales – They are toothed whales of the Delphinidae or the oceanic dolphins family.

It’s the close relative of our favorite dolphins, and it is much closer to them than to other whales.

Maybe that’s why killers whales are known to hunt baleen whales: they just don’t consider them as a family!

They are the biggest members of the Delphinidae family, with the average adult male being about 20 – 26 feet long (6 – 8 meters) and weighing approximately 14,000 lbs (6 tonnes) on average. Females are usually a little smaller, can be up to 23 feet long, and weigh about 8,000 – 8,500 lbs (4 tonnes).

Orcas live everywhere in the oceans. They are on the top of the food chain and can eat whatever they want, but usually, orcas specialize in what they can find locally.

These killer whales are apex predators and the only members of the species that hunt for warm-blooded animals.

Orcas broke off from their family branch about 11 million years ago, and for the longest time, orcas, along with other whales, were the most intelligent creatures on Earth before we came to take this place.

Now let’s talk about the organ that made orcas so special: the brain.

The brain of the Killer whale

Why Orcas Are One Of The Smartest Animals on Earth

The beautiful complexity of the orca brain

Being such a big animal, every orca, of course, needs a big brain to survive.

But not the big brain decides how smart an animal is, but its structure and encephalization quotient.

As for structure, orca brains have many convolutions and a large number of neurons placed closely to each other.

Orcas also have special spindle neurons that only humans, great apes, elephants, and some other whales have.

These neurons play a significant role in the learning process, and they are a sign of a really intelligent organism.

Since it is believed that great apes and humans got these neurons only about 15-20 million years ago, scientists say that these neurons developed in orcas parallel to humans and definitely show that they are even smarter than we think.

The encephalization quotient I’ve mentioned before is simply a raw brain-to-body mass ratio that shows us how developed the organism is.

You see, it takes a huge amount of energy for the brain to grow, and usually, animals survive thanks to their speed, senses, or protective abilities.

Only some of the animals use their brains to survive, and we, orcas, other primates, and elephants here take charge.

Killer whale(Orca) and Dolphin brain

Free photo Performance Training Orca - Max Pixel

Orcas with other dolphins have the third-largest encephalization quotient among the animals, and yes, orcas are even smarter than our closest relatives, chimpanzees.

Too bad for chimpanzees, but the killer whale had more time to develop!

One of the tests that scientists can do with animals without opening up their heads is the mirror test. Killer whale vs Saltwater crocodile

It is believed that recognizing yourself in the mirror indicates that the animal developed self-awareness and one of the highest levels of intellect.

Of course, orcas were put to this test, and they passed it with flying colors.

They joined the “We see who we are in the mirror” club with humans, elephants, most primates, some birds, and even a few fish species.

The key to killer whale intellect is social life

Why Orcas Are One Of The Smartest Animals on Earth

High intelligence in any animal is usually strongly connected to the social life they have.

Complex social systems need really developed brains, and, thankfully, orcas have them.

So orcas live in large groups of a couple of families, with one main female orca at the head of the group.

Usually, these groups have about 3-5 families and about 18 – 20 members. Matriarchy rules the orca world, and the mother’s authority here is absolutely undisputed.

Females have about six kids throughout their life, and most of them stay to live with mothers forever.

Sometimes male orcas enter other groups with available females, but most of them go there only for the mating periods and come back to their mothers after.

Relationships between orcas and their kids are strong, and they are much more attached to their mommas than their spouses.

In a mating period, some male orcas travel to other groups to find a mate with their mothers. It increases the male’s chances to find a beautiful orca female significantly.

Let me introduce you to the orca language

Every orca group speaks its special dialect of orca sound language, and mothers teach their kids their unique dialect.

If an orca leaves the family, it starts speaking another sound language of its new group.

Overall today, scientists know about 14,000 different unique sounds orcas can “say” during their conversations.

In 2014, it was discovered that orcas can not only learn their own dialect but also learn the “language” of bottlenose dolphins and communicate with them.

It’s shown how smart orcas truly are because they even can learn other languages and not every human can!

Learning and caring for elders

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) - Transient/Biggs | CA140 pod Mo… | Flickr

Orcas don’t have enemies in nature, and their social structure excludes wars inside the species, so they usually do much more interesting and important stuff: teach their babies and care for the elderly.

Orcas teach babies in groups, and every member of the group tries to transfer its knowledge to the new generation of the clan.

It is believed that orcas have cultural traditions, but we haven’t learned in what form these traditions exist yet.

Scientists also think that orca can count in their special way, and they understand the concept of numeracy.

At the age of two, a little orca ends its education, and now it is a rightful member of the family!

Most female orcas can live 50-70 years, but some can even celebrate their 100th birthday.

Males are not so lucky, and they usually live only about 30 years, and the record holds one male that celebrated his 60th birthday.

But longevity is not something unheard of in nature: many animals live even longer.

What is special about orcas is that females enter menopause just like human women, at the age of 40, and they can later live only to care for their families.

If any group member gets sick, injured, or too old to hunt, orcas take care of it, feed it, and don’t let it die. They are very caring and kind animals.

Orcas hunting method

Orca at top speed (CA 140 'Emma') | Matriarchs rule. 'Emma' … | Flickr

The fascinating part of the orcas’ behavior is their hunting methods.

They use complex strategic and tactical schemes to attack the potential prey, and every group member takes a special place in this scheme.

It shows that orcas can negotiate, create plans, and put them into practice. They use echolocation to find prey and then decide the method they will use to hunt it.

For example, when orcas want to catch a shoal of fish, they drive it into the shallows by circling it. 5 Animals that could defeat a killer whale

They can jump out of the water to catch sea lions, and in antarctic and arctic waters,

they circle animals that are stuck on an ice floe and move the ice piece until prey rolls into the water.

Orcas forcefully push out their babies on the shore to teach them to jump out of the water.

However, if they see that little fella panics or doesn’t know what to do, the adult orca pulls it back into the water and repeats the process until the baby learns what to do.

Maybe it is a harsh way to teach kids, but it is definitely a powerful one!

Relationships between orcas and other animals

Why Orcas Are One Of The Smartest Animals on Earth

Orcas are amiable animals: they are not afraid of humans, and some studies show that they probably think that we are equal to them.

There are many documented cases when orcas swam towards the ships to communicate with people.

However, when people killed one of the orcas, they remembered it and always avenged their fallen friend.

It shows their great memory and ability to memorize the enemies.

As I mentioned, they live perfectly fine with other dolphins and can sometimes communicate with them.

There were documented cases when orcas grouped with other species to protect everybody or for food, which shows how good these mammals are in diplomacy.

Overall it is obvious that orcas know their place in this world and probably the place of other animals. 5 Animals that could defeat a killer whale

They are friendly, kind, and intelligent creatures that become scary only when they hunt, but hey: it is just survival!

Did you like this little story about orca intelligence? Let us know your thoughts in the comment.

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