Friday, June 17, 2011

Killer Whales

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Swimming silently through the cool waters of the North Pacific, these proficient hunters come across a school of fish. Working as a team, they surround the fish until they are in a dense ball for easy catching. Swiftly they dive through the ball to obtain their meal. Satisfied, they go on and leave the fish to find something else that strikes their curiosity. Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are unique marine mammals due to their physical statistics, adaptation for an aquatic environment and their hunting/feeding methods.

The physical statistics of killer whales are particular to this group of marine mammals. Their coloration, fins, and size describe what the killer whale looks like.

To identify a killer whale at sea would be quite simple due to their distinctive coloration. They are black and white, with a gray saddle behind the dorsal fin. The white is prominently on the belly, with a lobe ascending the flank on each side and another pair of white, elliptical shaped lobes behind the eyes. They are counter-shaded being dark on their dorsal surface and white on their ventral surface. The dark side blends in with the murky ocean depths when viewed from above. The light ventral side blends in with the lighter surface of the sea when seen from below. Having this makes them practically invisible to their prey.

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Another easy way to spot a killer whale is by its dorsal fin. The fin is located right on the back of the orca and can be easily seen when the orca is near the surface. The dorsal fins of male killer whales are the tallest of any cetacean in the world, growing up to 6ft. Female dorsal fins are smaller at around -4ft. and my be slightly curved back. “Because of the huge diversity of killer whale dorsal fins, researchers take pictures of these fins to identify individuals and their pods, much like fingerprints are taken to identify humans.” (Gormley 14)

The Orcinus orca, or the killer whale, is the largest of the dolphin family. Although small compared to some whales, killer whales are the largest predators of mammals ever known. Males or bulls, average 1- feet and usually weigh between 8,000-1,000 lbs. Females or cows, some what smaller, average 16-1 feet and weigh between ,000-8,000 lbs. The largest male ever recorded was ft. and weighed ,000lbs. The largest female recorded was 8ft. and weighed 16,500lbs.

Adaptations for their aquatic environment can be described in their senses, swimming/diving methods, and in how they live and interact with others and by them selves.

The senses of killer whales are acute. They have a keen sense of hearing and the auditory cortex of the brain is well developed. Their ears are located just behind the eyes, and are small inconspicuous openings, with no external flaps. “They hear tones within the frequency range of about 0.5 to 15 kHz, which is much greater than the range for humans which is about 0.0 to 17 kHz.”(Bonner 171) Their hearing, or sound reception, probably takes place through the lower jaw. The fat filled lower jawbone conducts sound waves through the jaw to bones in the middle ears. The lower jawbone of toothed whales broadens and is hollow at the base, where is hinges with the skull. Within this very thing, hollow bone is a fat deposit that extends back toward the auditory bulla (ear bone complex). Sounds are received and conducted through the lower jaw to the middle ear, inner ear, and then to hearing centers in the brain via the auditory nerve.

Killer whales have acute vision both in and out of the water. Killer whales eyes are on each side of the head, located just behind and above the mouth, and in front of the white eyespot. The eye is well camouflaged and located near the white “false eyespot”. These false eyespots may protect a killer whale’s eyes from prey they are attacking. Prey animals may attempt to injure the eyes of a predator in order to escape, but the obvious false eyespot may draw attention away from the killer whale’s real eyes. In the eye there are glands at the inner corners of the eye sockets that secrete an oily, jelly like mucus that lubricates the eyes, washes away debris, and probably helps streamline the eyes as a killer whale swims. The tear like film may also protect the eyes from infectious organisms.

Killer whales are among the fastest swimming marine mammals. “They can swim at speeds up to 0mph, making them perhaps the second fastest marine mammal next to the Commerson’s dolphin, which reaches swimming speed up to 5mph.”(Payne 48) But they generally cruise at lower speeds around -6mph. When diving, killer whales usually do not dive deep; usually around 100-00 ft. although the deepest dive known under experimental conditions was 00 ft. Their longer dives usually last around 10 minutes, with the longest dive observed in the ocean lasting 1 minutes. Like other marine mammals, killer whales have a slower heart rate while diving. It can slow from 60 beats to 0 beats per minute while diving. Also when diving, blood is shunted away from tissues tolerant of low oxygen levels and channeled toward the heart, lungs, and brain where oxygen is needed. Marine mammals have a higher concentration of the oxygen-binding protein myoglobin in the muscles. Myoglobin stores oxygen and helps prevent muscle oxygen deficiency. These combined adaptations allow a killer whale to conserve oxygen during a dive.

Killer whales live in cohesive long-term social units called pods. The size of a pod usually varies from fewer than 5 to about 0 individuals, with the largest recorded being over 100 whales. Pods consist of males, females, and calves of varying age. Females and juveniles generally remain in the center of the pod, while adult males swim at the wings. Killer whales in a pod appear to establish strong social bonds. Behavior studies suggest that certain animals prefer associating with one another. “Killer whale behavior includes spy hopping, breaching, lob tailing, pec slapping, and dorsal fin slapping.”(Journal ) Scientists believe that these behaviors are connected with displays of dominance or to survey a surrounding area. They may also do some of these behaviors to relive an itch, as their outer skin layer is continually sloughed as they swim. Also they engage in beach rubbing; they rub their bodies along the pebbly bottoms of shallow bays. This may help the whales remove external parasites, or they do it for the tactile stimulation.

Knowing how the killer whales hunt is an amazing thing to know seeing how they are magnificent predators underwater. They eat a variety of food eat day to survive in their ocean environments.

Killer whales are without a doubt the top predators in the ocean. In fact, they are the largest predators of warm-blooded animals ever known. Much like packs of wolves or pride lions, killer whales often hunt cooperatively in pod for food. They work together to encircle and herd prey into a small area before attacking. This act is called balling. They also sometimes throw their prey in to the air as if they were playing with it, as a cat plays with a mouse before they eat it. When hunting a large whale, a pod of killer whales may attack from several angles.

When eating, killer whales swallow their food in chucks, but their throats are large enough to swallow small seals and walruses whole. They often tend to eat the tongues and livers of their prey first. Fishes, squids, seals, sea lions, walruses, birds, sea turtles, otters and penguins all make up the diet of the killer whale. They usually need about % to 4% of their body weight in food per day.

To admire these whale in their habitat and learn so much about them is truly an experience one should have. Hopefully the oceans will remain safe for these whales and all magnificent creatures of the sea.

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