Episode 136 – Orca: The Social Sea King

“…and today we’re talking about a seriously amazing cetacean sensation. But more on that later…”

Upon first look, a cetacean may seem perfectly alien to a human being. But a closer look may reveal soulful eyes, intelligent behavior, and playful attitudes. An even closer inspection will uncover the fact that these organic torpedoes are extremely sophisticated in their social bonds in a way that even human beings can relate to. Though they have a reputation as killers, orcas are family-oriented. For the world’s largest dolphin, sticking together can help them succeed in a vast ocean. But society isn’t just a tool for humans to use, in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

The Orca’s Range

Literally everywhere in the ocean. They live all the way from the shallow warm waters of the Caribbean to the freezing Antarctic. Though they like the colder waters.

Description of the Orca

Despite their name, killer whales aren’t whales. They’re porpoises – giant dolphins. They have torpedo-shaped bodies with black backs and white bellies. Though they do find all-white ones occasionally – not albinos.

They have a tall, triangular dorsal fin that sticks straight up like a shark’s and they have relatively short pectoral fins (compared to most whales)

They also have a distinctive white patch above and behind each eye – not on the eye.

Their mouths are lined with rows of sharp teeth that fit together like an enamel-coated death puzzle when closed.

Like all cetaceans, they have a blowhole in the tops of their heads so they can breathe without having to stick their heads out of the water.

There are actually three different categories of killer whales – all the same species:

  • Residents – orcas that visit the same places every year and mostly eat just fish.
  • Transients – ocean predators that mostly eat marine mammals.
  • Offshore – Congregate in large groups, you guessed it, offshore. They eat fish and occasionally mammals and sharks. 

Then there are four distinct types of orcas:

  • Type A – Standard killer whale.
  • Type B – Medium grey skin instead of black. White areas are slightly yellow.
  • Type C – Smallest type and has a thin, slanted eye patch.
  • Type D – Looks like a killer whale and a beluga whale had a chubby, disinterested baby with a half-moon dorsal fin.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words measure up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a Measure Up intro this week. That means, we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is. 

  1. Red Fox
  2. Red Squirrel
  3. Red Panda
  4. Red-capped Cardinal


  • Males are larger than females and can be 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 ft) long.
  • Females can be up to 7 m (23 feet).
  • Let’s go with 26 feet.
  • How many orcas go into Alaska’s tallest mountain?
  • Hint: The tallest mountain in Alaska is Denali (formerly called Mount Mckinley), and it’s also the highest peak in North America. In 2011, it was officially 10 feet shorter than its original elevation, not because it’s getting smaller, but because of a faulty measurement in the 1950s.
  • 781 orcas. The mountain is 20,310 feet tall.


  • Males can reach 5.6 tonnes (6.6 tons).
  • How many of the smallest dolphin species go into the weight of an orca.
  • Hint: The smallest dolphin is the Hector’s Dolphin, and they’re native to South Island in New Zealand.
  • 100 Hector’s Dolphins. They weigh up to 132 pounds.

Fast Facts About the Orca

Diet: Almost everything that isn’t a plant. They’re apex predators that hunt in packs to take down everything from fish and cephalopods to birds and even whale calves. They’ll also sometimes go after fully-grown whales if they have a big enough pod. The only two whales that aren’t on the menu are male adult sperm whales and adult blue whales.

Lifespan: up to 80 years. But females can only breed until their 40. So they are some of the few animals in the world that go through menopause. Most other animals die after they can’t breed anymore.

Up to 50% of all newborn calves die before they’re 7 months old

Adult males will sometimes kill the calves of females in order to mate with them since females won’t mate while they have calves.

Orcas are the second most widespread mammals in the world after humans.

They have dialects or accents based on location.

Different clans speak different “languages” and may not understand other clans they encounter. 

Orcas, like humans, go through menopause, which is a bodily process that marks the end of a female’s reproductive ability. Only a few species are known to have lifespans that last much longer than their ability to reproduce. Besides humans, they are all cetaceans.

A theory called the grandmother hypothesis could explain this. The species that go through menopause often nurture other members of their group and support current offspring. Menopause may allow them to devote more resources to community support.

Orca Major Fact: The Social Sea King

Orcas are extremely intelligent, even for cetaceans, and exhibit many qualities that might be familiar to us as humans. First of all, they have a complex social structure that helps them better coordinate the group when taking on challenging tasks like hunting. Besides humans, the only animals with similarly complex social structures are certain primates and elephants. 

It seems that we know the most about residents, which makes sense because we know where to find them. Each type is genetically different and avoids each other when they live in the same areas.

Orca Boss Moms

Orca groups are matriarchal. Though adult male orcas are larger, they have much shorter lifespans than females. They live 25 years while females can live 50 to 90 years. Family groups are based on the female lineage and are dominated by the oldest female in the group. She may preside over four generations during her lifetime. On average, an orca matriline will consist of five to six other whales that live with her for her entire life. 

Pods may include up to four matrilines, and pods tend to have loose blood relations. Matrilines are close-knit and it’s rare for a member to leave the group for more than a few hours. In some cases, individuals will leave to hunt or mate and then return. 

Several pods in a region will make up a clan, which is a collection of intermingling pods that share a dialect. Clan territories can overlap forming the largest orca social group called a community. However, different clans in the same community may not share the same vocal patterns. 

How Do Orcas Hunt?

Males were once thought to lead hunts but it seems like they are often put in flanking positions. Their large size may be used to box in prey. Together, groups of orcas can take down blue whales through extensive coordination. There are two recorded orca attacks on blue whales. In the videos, females lead the attack and drive the whale forward while males flank the whale to prevent escape. When the whale was exhausted, younger orcas joined the hunt to gain experience points. 

Because of their intelligence and close social bonds, it’s called into question the ethics of raising and keeping captive orcas.

Ending: So put on your tux, have some class, and act like you’ve been there before like the orca here in LDT.


Thank you to Casy for creating our theme song. To hear more of Casy’s music search Casy Michelle on Youtube

Thank you to Brian for creating the episode art. See more of Brian’s art at xNamaru on Instagram or Twitter.