Killer whales are often grouped in with and given a “shark” label because they seem hungry, toothy, and sometimes even violent enough to have been a good understudy for “Jaws.” Even their name can be considered the scariest one of the larger sea creatures!
Saying this, killer whales – also known as orcas – are not sharks at all! In fact, they are members of the dolphin family.
The Dolphin Family
Before we go into why exactly an orca is a dolphin, it is best to know what makes a dolphin in the first place!
The second fun fact of the day (after the fact that orcas are not sharks) is that dolphins and whales technically belong to the same family. However, this family has suborders, which allows for a distinct separation between what we consider dolphins and porpoises, and what we consider whales.
The Odontoceti suborder classifies all dolphins and porpoises, including orcas! The Mysticeti suborder is composed of what we believe to be whales.
Additionally, dolphins and porpoises belong to the same subcategory, though there are significantly less species of porpoises than dolphins.
What Makes an Orca a Dolphin?
An orca is technically considered a dolphin due to similar physical characteristics.
Orcas are similar to dolphins in that they have teeth, a rounded head and a beak, and streamlined bodies. Orcas and dolphins both also have what is known as a melon.
A melon is a fatty deposit on what we would consider the forehead of the orcas head, and makes their heads look dome-like. Only dolphins in the Odontoceti subcategory have melons; whales do not.
The melon is a really important organ of dolphins and orcas in that it greatly aids in echolocation. The melon has varying densities throughout, and acts to focus the sound waves before they travel through the water as a form of communication.
Orcas also only have one blowhole. As dolphins have one blowhole and whales have two, this is further proof that orcas belong in the dolphin subcategory.
Killer Whales vs Shark
While killer whales may not be sharks and are in fact dolphins, it is well known that sharks are terrified or killer whales. Sharks are known to evacuate their hunting areas for times up to one year if they even see a killer whale nearby.
Marine biologists are beginning to rethink their former conclusion that the apex predator of the ocean is the great white shark, and are reassigning that title to the orca.
The reason for this has been observed by many people who have watched shark and orca encounters. When sharks get in the way of orcas, orcas are known to beat the sharks until they die, and then feast on their livers. Orcas don’t seem to ever eat the rest of the shark.
Orca whales are not sharks by a long shot. If anything, they are very scary dolphins that sharks run at the sight of! Their anatomy also resembles that of a dolphin, albeit a good amount larger.
Saying this, it is important to note that there has never been a recorded fatality of a human-caused by an orca whale attack in the wild. So while sharks may be afraid of these creatures, there is no reason for you to be so long as you are respectful of them and their environments.