Killer whale

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Killer whale
Killer whales (Orcinus orca).  Unimak Island, Eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska.

Killer whales ( Orcinus orca ). Unimak Island , Eastern Aleutian Islands , Alaska .

Order : Whales (cetacea)
Subordination : Toothed whales (Odontoceti)
Superfamily : Dolphin-like (Delphinoidea)
Family : Dolphins (Delphinidae)
Genre : Orcinus
Type : Killer whale
Scientific name of the  genus
Fitzinger , 1860
Scientific name of the  species
Orcinus orca
( Linnaeus , 1758)

The killer whale ( Orcinus orca ) is a species of whale from the family of dolphins (Delphinidae). It is also called orca or - to differentiate it from the little killer whale ( Pseudorca crassidens ) - great killer whale ; an old German name is Butskopf . The name killer whale and killer whale were given to the animals by whalers and refer to the often brutal-looking hunting methods of these predatory whales. The species is distributed worldwide, but prefers to inhabit near-coast waters at higher latitudes.

Killer whales are social animals that have a complex population structure. The smallest unit is the maternal line, a very close association of maternal related whales. A passing on of certain hunting tactics and vocalizations to young animals can be observed both at the level of the maternal line and at higher population levels, which is sometimes assessed as a culture. The worldwide killer whale population can be divided into different ecotypes, which differ in their physique, their vocalizations and in their behavior. Whether the ecotypes represent individual species is the subject of scientific discussion - but it is particularly striking that members of different ecotypes do not cross. DNA analyzes from 2010 suggest that several species and subspecies need to be distinguished.

At the global level, the killer whale is a generalist carnivore that prey on fish, marine mammals such as seals and, occasionally, other whales. In rare cases, adult baleen whales are among their prey. Local ecotypes usually specialize in certain prey animals for which they have special hunting strategies. Killer whales are top predators of the seas because they have no predators . They are known to hunt in coordinated groups.

The killer whale as a species is considered not endangered. The killer whale was largely spared from whaling . However, individual populations are threatened by pollution. The cultural significance of the killer whale ranges from traditional worship by North American Indians to today's, controversial attitude in dolphinariums .


Size comparison with a diver
Skeleton of a killer whale, Senckenberg Museum (Frankfurt am Main)

The killer whale is the largest species of dolphin - bulls or killer whales can grow up to 9.8 m long. Cows (the females) remain significantly smaller with a maximum of 8.5 m. Average lengths are 7 m for females and 8.2 m for males. The largest documented weight was found to be 6.6 t in a 7.65 m long bull. The bulls have proportionally larger fins. The up to 1.8 m high triangular fin of the bulls, which gave the species the name "killer whale", is particularly striking . The fin stays under 1 m in cows. The paddle-shaped flippers are around 2 m long in the bull and 1.5 m in the cow. The fluke is up to 2.8 m wide, is clearly notched in the middle and curved concave on the inner edges. The bubble is 1–2 m high and not always visible.

A characteristic feature of the species is its high-contrast black and white coloring. The back is black, while the belly and a spot behind each eye are set off in white. Behind the fin is a gray saddle. The underside of the fluke is white except for the edges. In field research, individual individuals are differentiated on the basis of pigmentation and the shape of the saddle as well as the shape of the fin ( photo identification ). According to their statement, Russian scientists have located a completely white adult killer whale near the commander's islands in the North Pacific.

The skull of the killer whale, especially the upper jaw bones , are very broad and strongly built. A temple window, which is unusually well developed for dolphins, provides an approach for strong chewing muscles. Each half of the jaw has 10–14 conical teeth 2.5–5 cm in diameter, a total of 40–56 teeth. To fix and tear strong and mobile prey, the teeth of the upper and lower jaw interlock. The jaws of killer whales often show malpositions or badly worn teeth, which can be attributed to the resistance of large prey. The killer whale's body is supported by 50 vertebrae .


Distribution of the killer whale (blue)

The killer whale is found worldwide, but it is comparatively rare in tropical waters. The largest populations are found at higher latitudes, particularly in the North Pacific, North Atlantic and the polar seas. Most of the killer whale populations live relatively close to the coast most of the time. The killer whale is common in European waters, especially off Norway. However, the species also inhabits the waters around Greenland , Iceland , Jan Mayen , the Faroe Islands , Bear Island , Franz Josef Land , Svalbard , Novaya Zemlya , the British Isles and the waters of the northern North Sea. The killer whale is rarer in the southern North Sea, for example off Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, and the same applies to the Baltic Sea. Killer whales are rarely seen in the English Channel and off Western Europe. In the Mediterranean, specimens immigrated from the Atlantic are observed only in exceptional cases.

In the past, it has been observed more and more frequently that in the course of global warming and the receding ice killer whales are increasingly entering arctic regions that they have previously avoided because of the ice, which poses a risk of injury to their dorsal fin. As a result, they could dispute the role of the polar bear's top predator of the Arctic and also pose a potential threat to the polar bear himself, since the bears have to spend a long time in the water when the ice surface disappears.


Comparison of the fins of offshore , resident , and transient killer whales in the Northeast Pacific. From Dahlheim et al. (2008).
Killer Whale Types.jpg

There are a number of different killer whale types that differ in their body structure, color, social behavior, vocalizations, behavior and, in particular, their preferred prey. These different types of killer whales are known as ecotypes . There are now 10 different types, five in the southern hemisphere and five in the northern hemisphere. As terms for the very well-studied populations in the northeastern Pacific Ocean off British Columbia , Washington State and Alaska the names were resident , transient and offshore coined. The ecotypes are often sympatric , but they rarely come into social contact with one another; in particular, they do not cross.

Killer whales of the southern hemisphere:

  • Antarctic type A killer whale
  • Great type B killer whale (pack ice killer whale)
  • small type B killer whale (Gerlache killer whale)
  • Type C killer whale (Ross Sea killer whale)
  • Type D killer whale

Northern hemisphere killer whales:

  • Resident killer whale
  • Bigg's transient killer whale
  • Offshore killer whale
  • Killer whale of the eastern North Atlantic type 1
  • Killer whale of the eastern North Atlantic type 2

Forney & Wade (2007) propose three basic categories for the global classification:

  • Mammal-eaters (mammal eaters) : These killer whales hunting in particular other marine mammals such as seals and whales. In the Northeast Pacific there are some seal-specializedpopulations knownas transient , and there is alsoa seal-specialized populationon the Atlantic coast of Argentina . New Zealand waters are inhabited by an ecotype that primarily preyes on other whales. The Antarctic A killer whales specialize in hunting minke whales ( Balaenoptera bonaerensis ). There is also a seal specialist in the Antarctic, Type B, who attacks penguins in addition to marine mammals. The populations off Greenland have also made other marine mammals their preferred prey and regularly attack other whales in addition to seals.
  • Coastal fish-eaters (coastal fish eaters) : These populations usually stay near the coast and hunt mainly fish. A typical example are the resident populations of the North Pacific, as well as the killer whales off Norway and some other European populations off Iceland, for example. In New Zealand, two out of three populations are mainly fish-eaters. In the Antarctic, the coastal fish-eaters are represented by the Antarctic C and D types.
  • Oceanic and Neritic Killer Whales (oceanic and neritic killer whales) : Such populations are known for example on the American west coast from Alaska to Mexico; there the term offshore was coinedfor them. They are far less coastal bound than most populations and occur on the continental shelf up to 200 miles from the coast. Little is known about the way of life of such killer whales; the diet apparently consists mainly of fish, but also includes cephalopods and marine mammals.

Way of life


Migrating killer whales off British Columbia

Killer whales usually move in groups: Mammal-eaters are usually observed in groups of less than 10 individuals , while coastal fish-eaters usually appear in groups of 5–50 individuals. Oceanic and Neritic Killer Whales form aggregations of 10–70 animals. Mass gatherings of up to 150 killer whales are less common. Moving groups move at an average of around 10 km / h, but also reach speeds of over 20 km / h. Resting killer whales move very slowly, stay underwater and emerge every 2–5 minutes. Occasionally, killer whales linger motionless on the surface of the water. Jumping in the air and similar behavior can be interpreted as social behavior. In addition to resting and dragging, killer whales spend 60–95% of their time foraging.

Population structure

The social behavior of the killer whale is based on a complex population structure, the basic unit of which is the mother line ( matriline ). Such a typical group consists of an old cow, her calves and the calves of her young female animals. It is a very close bond, only occasionally individuals move away from the rest of the maternal line for more than a few hours. Permanent change to another maternal line has not been observed so far, but in rare cases males become loners who are occasionally observed with changing other associations. A larger level of the population is the school ( pod ), an association of closely related maternal lines. Motherlines in one school are often separated for weeks or months, but interact more often with motherlines in their own school than with other schools. The parent of the school is the clan ( clan ). All members of a clan are characterized by a similar sound repertoire, which indicates their origin and division from a mother line. The parent of the clan is the community ( community ), a regional group of clans of the same ecotype. For example, there are three resident communities in the NE Pacific : southern (1 clan, 3 schools), northern (3 clans, 16 schools) and southern Alaskan (2 clans, 11 schools). Even if this population structure was examined primarily in killer whales from the NE Pacific, general evidence suggests that this social structure is spread around the world. In the case of Norwegian killer whales, at least one maternal line system has also been confirmed beyond doubt, as has a subdivision into clans with different dialects . The mating structure was elucidated by biopsy arrows and paternity tests on residents in the NE Pacific: Males mainly mate with cows from other clans in the same community, apparently in temporary encounters. The interactions of different killer whale groups have been researched in Norway, where several maternal lines of schools of herring regularly gather. In the vast majority of cases, the groups tolerated each other, but occasionally larger groups were observed to displace other groups. This may be due to the high spatial concentration of herrings or their decrease due to overfishing .

Each dam line develops its own vocalizations and hunting techniques, which are passed on to the calves. Killer whales have been observed several times pushing young animals in the direction of prey or throwing them to prey that have already been captured and weakened. Another example is the deliberate beaching of killer whales off Argentina to catch seals in the surf: this is taught to 3–5 year old calves by being led onto the beach and pushed back into the water. Such differences in behavior between the maternal lines are seen by biologists as a manifestation of culture.


Like all dolphins, the killer whale uses a wide repertoire of sounds for communication and echolocation . The fish-eating residents of the Northeast Pacific communicate using repetitive, clear sounds while hunting. Depending on the school, they use 7-17 different types of vocalizations. Killer whales hunting mammals, however, do not communicate when they catch their prey and hardly use any sounds for echolocation - probably in order not to draw prey's attention unnecessarily. While resting killer whales are mostly calm, they utter non-repetitive, variable and pulsating sounds when it comes to social behavior. Similar vocalization behavior is known from killer whales off Norway.

Diet and hunting behavior

Killer whales circle an ice floe with penguins.
An Antarctic B killer whale attacks a seal.
Albatrosses follow a killer whale; The picture was taken by a camera attached to the bird.

The killer whale is a top predator . Globally, its diet includes at least 140 species of fish, marine mammals , seabirds , cephalopods and sea ​​turtles . Orca ecotypes specialize locally in certain prey animals and practice hunting strategies tailored to their prey. Killer whales are particularly known for coordinated group attacks on their prey. The Norwegian killer whales feed mainly on herring and hunt them down to a depth of usually up to 20, occasionally up to 100 m. In addition, some groups practice what is known as the “carousel”: this tactic involves chasing a shoal of herring to the surface of the water, surrounding it with air bubbles from the blowholes and stunned it with blows with the fluke. The transients of the Northeast Pacific usually lurk seals in front of their resting places on the beach and ram them with their heads or hit them with the fluke. Killer whales are deliberately stranded off Argentina to catch young seals in the surf. To do this, sometimes several killer whales swim in a row towards the beach to cut off the seals' path. Antarctic B killer whales are known to check ice floes for seals and penguins, break the ice floes into smaller pieces, and then swim together to create a wave. This throws the prey from the ice floe. Orcas before Zealand often prey elasmobranchii - along with stingrays and sharks such as the basking shark , the blue shark , the Smooth Hammerhead or the commons thresher shark .

Killer whales are also known to hunt other whales. Most often these are small whales like other dolphins - killer whales often join together to form larger groups. When killer whales attack schools of dolphins, they secrete individual individuals and pursue them until they are exhausted. The dolphin is then killed by, among other things, ramming, fluke blows and bites. The calves are mostly attacked by large baleen whales in particular. Attacks on adult baleen whales or sperm whales are very rare. Depending on the region, up to 40 percent of the large whales have scars from killer whale attacks, but these were mostly present before investigations began. Even over several years, only seven percent of an examined humpback whale population showed new scars from attacks. In one published case, a great blue whale was attacked; some of the killer whales prevented the whale from diving by swimming under its belly. Meanwhile, other killer whales bit the blue whale in its fins.

After a large prey has been killed, orcas often share the food among their conspecifics. When it comes to eating behavior, it is noticeable that killer whales only eat certain parts of their prey and leave the rest, in penguins for example only the chest muscles. Large whales only eat their tongues, lips and blubbers , sharks often only eat their livers, and killer whales also de-graze seals to get to preferred parts of their bodies. If prey is left over from the killer whale's ingestion, it is often eaten by seabirds. This behavior is known from seagulls , skuas , albatrosses and petrels , among others . Especially in times of low prey, this commensalism could be more energetically efficient than catching prey on its own, or the birds can more easily track down foraging grounds. Some seabirds are also known to actively follow killer whales. They apparently also target food scraps, especially since killer whales are easier to find than common prey.

A large male killer whale has a daily energy requirement of around 358 MJ . A population of killer whales as top predators can thus have a noticeable impact on an ecosystem. A 50 percent decline in a king penguin colony over a few years is attributed to hunting by killer whales.


The migration behavior of killer whales is poorly understood. It is known of the killer whales off Norway that a number of groups follow the seasonal migrations of the herring: In winter (late August to mid-January) the occurrence of killer whales is concentrated at the same time as that of herring off the north of Norway, for example off the Lofoten Islands or in the Tysfjord . Then the herring migrate to their spawning grounds in the south, around Møre og Romsdal . Orcas also take advantage of the high concentration of their prey in the spawning grounds. In March and April the herrings scatter in open waters until the next winter - the same can be observed with the killer whale. It can be observed that the residents of the NE Pacific Ocean follow the salmon to their spawning grounds in summer, but the movement patterns in winter are unknown. Marine mammal specialists swim across large areas and take comparatively unpredictable routes. This frequent change in the reasons for prey is probably due to the fact that the marine mammals become more cautious after a while when killer whales hunt in front of their colony. An Antarctic B-whale therefore covers an average of around 57 km / d, whereas the fish-eating type C only covers an average of 11–30 km / d. Populations off Argentina are known that visit certain seal colonies for a few months each year. The arrival of the killer whales coincides with the first attempts at swimming by young animals, which are easy prey.

Reproduction and development

Little is known about the reproduction of the killer whale. Orca cows are sexually mature at 6-10 years of age and have cyclic oestrus that is occasionally interrupted for 3-16 months. Depending on the study, the gestation period is estimated at 12-18 months. Little is known about the seasonal distribution of births; in the Resident -Schwertwalen births are distributed throughout the year, with an emphasis in the fall. Calves are 2–2.5 m long at birth and weigh around 200 kg. You will be weaned after 1–2 years, but will already consume solid food beforehand. The bond between the young and the mother is very strong. For the first months after the birth of killer whales in captivity, neither the calf nor the mother sleep - so far it is not clear what this behavior is for and how the calves develop anyway. Cows usually have their first calf when they are 12-14 years old, then they give birth to another calf every 2-14 years until they are 40 years old. Orca cows give birth to an average of 5–6 calves in their lifetime. Orca bulls become sexually mature at 12-16 years of age. Killer whales are fully grown when they are around 20-25 years old.

Mortality and life expectancy

Young killer whales have a very high mortality rate of 43%. After that, however, mortality drops sharply because killer whales have no natural enemies: for young animals under 14.5 years of age it is 1.8%, for adult bulls 3.9% and for adult cows 1.1%. The annual mortality rate in the wild averages 2.3% and in captivity between 6.2 and 7.0%. The mean life expectancy of cows after the first 6 months of life is around 50 years, in exceptional cases an age of 80–90 years is reached. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has calculated that the oldest living cow is 105-year-old Granny . Their age was calculated from the reproductive cycle. Bulls, on the other hand, have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years and live at most 50–60 years.


The first description took place in 1758 in Carl von Linnés Systema Naturae , where he was still called Delphinus orca . The genus name Orcinus was founded in 1860 by Leopold Fitzinger . In Latin it means something like "from the realm of the dead". The specific epithet orca means "whale". The Orca is loud cladistic analysis of the nucleotide sequence of the cytochrome B gene closest relative of Australian Stupsfinnendelfin ( Orcaella heinsohni ) and the Irawadidelfins ( Orcaella brevirostris ). According to this hypothesis, the three species form the subfamily Orcininae in the family of dolphins (Delphinidae) .

Phylogenetic systematics of the Delphinidae according to Horreo 2018

other Delphinidae




Round-headed dolphin ( Grampus griseus )


Little killer whale ( Pseudorca crassidens )


Little pilot whale ( Feresa attenuata )


Broad-billed dolphin ( Peponocephala electra )


Pilot whale ( Globicephala )


Short-snouted dolphins ( Lagenorhynchus )


Black and white dolphins ( Cephalorhynchus )


Killer whale ( Orcinus orca )

Template: Klade / Maintenance / Style

Genetic studies show the great killer whale as a sister species to the black and white dolphins ( Cephalorhynchus ) and the short -snouted dolphins ( Lagenorhynchus ). Together, these species are the subfamily Globicephalinae with the pilot whales ( Globicephala ), the pygmy killer whale ( Feresa attenuata ) and the Breitschnabel dolphin ( Peponocephala Electra ), the little Orca ( Pseudorca crassidens ) and the Risso ( Grampus griseus ) and the two species of the genus Orcaella faced .

Whether the killer whale is only one species or should be split into several species has been discussed since the 19th century. Although there are clearly different behaviors, different physique and reproductive isolation between the ecotypes, no separation could be established until recently. In a more recent study (Morin et al. 2010) the mitochondrial genome (the complete mitochondrial DNA ) of 139 killer whales from different regions was sequenced and cladistically analyzed. The results speak strongly in favor of establishing a number of separate species and subspecies, but a formal initial description is still pending. According to the molecular clock , the split into different ecotypes took place 700,000–150,000 years ago.

Killer whales and humans

Orca at a demonstration. The drooping dorsal fin is clearly visible

The killer whale was not as affected by whaling as other species. Japan shot an average of 43 specimens annually from 1946–1981, mainly for human consumption. The Norwegian (1938–1981, an average of 56 per year) and the Russian (1939–1975, an average of 26, but 916 in the 1979/1980 season) whaling aimed at the production of animal feed. According to data from 2008, small numbers are still being shot off Japan, Indonesia, Greenland and some Caribbean islands.

In 1964, an orca was first exhibited in an aquarium in Vancouver . Since then, killer whales have been popular animals in dolphinariums , where they learn and perform tricks because of their intelligence. This form of husbandry is highly controversial, but scientific opinions also differ widely. It can be observed that many killer whales in dolphinariums do not reach their natural life expectancy. It is noticeable that the large dorsal fin of the males folds down in captivity. The fin does not contain any bone for support, instead collagen holds it in place. A change in the structure of the collagen eventually causes it to flip; Possible reasons are a disruption of the water balance due to changed water values, lower blood pressure due to reduced activity or excessive heat, as the fin is often kept above water in shallow pools.

Haida sculpture by Bill Reid

Killer whales are revered by numerous indigenous cultures; They also play a role in popular culture, for example in the Free Willy films. They are one of the preferred species for whale watching and are a popular model for inflatable rubber animals . Attacks by wild killer whales on humans are very rare and could also be related to overfishing by deep-sea fleets. However, killer whales in dolphinariums have attacked and killed people in several cases, which appears to be related to the cramped housing. The Tilikum whale is particularly well-known in this regard and was held responsible for three of these cases.

Existence and endangerment

Forney & Wade (2007) estimate the worldwide population of the killer whale to be at least 50,000 specimens. The IUCN Red List of the IUCN lists the whale as data deficient , so there is plenty of missing data for classification. The reason is the taxonomic uncertainty: From a global perspective, the killer whale is not threatened, but some local populations suffer severe population losses. If these are now separated as species, they would have to be classified as being of a high degree of threat. One of the reasons for the local population decline is targeted shooting by fishermen, as killer whales eat fish from longlines . Live killer whales are occasionally caught for dolphinariums, in Russia the catch of orcas for sale to China was justified at the beginning of 2019. Killer whale whaling is still practiced locally . Another hazard is environmental pollution: on the one hand through the bioaccumulation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in killer whales, on the other hand through oil pollution . Finally, there can be a shortage of prey, for example through overfishing or environmental toxins. This particularly affects highly specialized orca populations.

The concentration of PCBs found in the tissues of killer whales affects the reproduction and immune system of the animals and threatens over half of the killer whale populations worldwide. Most affected are populations that live in the vicinity of industrial regions .


The Spaekhugger , named in Danish after the killer whale, is a type of sailing ship suitable for the high seas , whose hull and keel are reminiscent of the back and fin of a killer whale.


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  • The Whale and the Raven. Germany / Canada 2019. Written & directed by Mirjam Leuze. Cedar Island Films producer. EA in German-speaking countries: May 10, 2019, Munich, Kino Rio 1, English sound, German subtitles (subsequent discussion with the film team, including whale researcher Hermann Meuter and whale researcher Janie Wray, as well as with Shirley Vercruysse from the National Film Board of Canada ). Film in cooperation with ARTE and the Film- und Medienstiftung NRW .

Web links

Wiktionary: Orca  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Orca ( Orcinus orca )  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

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  10. Killer whales moving in on polar bears' territory., January 31, 2012.
  11. Clash of the fiercest predators as shark eats polar bear., August 12, 2008.
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This article was added to the list of articles worth reading on June 4, 2011 in this version .