Among humans, it is easy to see differences in behavior between families, communities, and countries. We call this culture. But humans are not the only species with culture. Although not quite as visible or extreme, Orcas are one species that can be said to have culture as well.

In the Pacific Northwest, there are three known ecotypes of Killer Whale: Residents, Transients, and Offshores. Despite the fact that these are all members of the same species, each of these varieties live very different lifestyles.

Resident Orcas typically live in large stable social groups. These pods usually consist of a matriarch, or dominant female, and her young. Often, the matriarch will travel with other related females, such as sisters, and their offspring. As offspring become mature, they tend to remain with their mothers as long as she is alive. Since residents eat mostly fish and salmon, they are thought to benefit from this type of social structure when foraging.


Transient Orcas tend to travel in smaller groups that can vary considerably over time. Transients are hunters of mammals of all sizes. It is suspected that their group size varies with their needs for each other when foraging for seals, sea lions, porpoises, or larger whales.


                                                                                                                                                                                     photos M. Noonan

Less is known about Offshore Orcas since they live further out at sea and are less accessible to scientific observers. They have been seen in fairly large groups, and it is thought that they eat fish and have a lifestyle similar to resident whales.

These different killer whale groupings have a preferred diet and different life style despite overlapping ranges and the identical foraging opportunities. Such differences can be viewed as cultural.

There are many other examples from around the world. In the icy waters off Norway, Orcas use a different hunting technique. Working as a group, they slowly herd huge schools of herring into tight balls of fish. The whales then smack these balls with their extremely powerful tails, stunning the fish. As their prey lie motionless in the water, the Orcas circle back around to eat them.

In Patagonia, South America, Orcas specialize in hunting sea lions. Rookeries, where sea lion pups are born, are the favored hunting grounds of these whales. When pups are first weaned, they often venture too close to the water’s edge where Orcas rush onto shore to grab them.

And "cultural" differences do not just pertain to diet. Between Antarctica and South Africa are the Crozet Islands. Orcas here are known to visit kelp beds several times a day to swim through the thick gardens of seaweed. It seems that the whales enjoy the sensations so much that they may do this several times a day. Orcas elsewhere have not been seen to do this. By contrast Resident whales in British Columbia have been observed rubbing themselves on shallow pebblely beaches like the one below. Orcas elsewhere have not been observed to do this.

photo M. Noonan
Orca "rubbing beach" in British Columbia


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