General Biology

photo M. Noonan

The scientific name for the Killer Whale is Orcinus orca. It is a species in the taxonomic order, Cetacea. Altogether, there are 77 species of cetaceans, split into two suborders: Mysticeti and Odontoceti. There are ten species of mysticetes, including the largest animal in the world, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). These whales are equipped with giant plates called baleen which they use to gather their food. Thus, they are often referred to as baleen whales.

The other species of whales are called odontocetes, or toothed whales. River dolphins, beaked whales, porpoises, and sperm whales are all examples of odontocetes. Orcas are odontocetes too. They are the largest members of the dolphin family which also includes the Bottlenose dolphin, (Tursiops truncatus) and many others.

Like all dolphins, Orcas have torpedo-shaped bodies and this shape makes them well-suited for moving smoothly through the ocean. They are able to reach speeds up to 30 mph!



Orcas, like all whales, are mammals and give birth to live, air-breathing babies that immediately rise to the surface for a breath. The gestation period lasts anywhere from 15 to 17 months. At birth, Orcas weigh about 200 pounds.



Adult Orcas are quite large. Females can reach 8 meters in length and weigh about 8 tons; males can grow to be as long as 9 meters and weigh up to 10 tons!



Orcas as a species are quite long-lived. In the wild, male Killer Whales are thought to live close to 50 years, and females live even longer. There is evidence that one wild female near British Columbia is more than 70 years old and still living!

photo M. Noonan

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.