American Oceans

Orcas Are Getting Smarter and Here’s Why

Orcas, also known as killer whales, have long been recognized as one of the most intelligent species in the ocean. Their ability to adapt and innovate has allowed them to remain at the top of the food chain in every ocean. However, changing ocean conditions and increased human activity may be forcing them to learn new survival tactics.

an orca swimming in the ocean

According to The Guardian’s Philip Hoare, orcas are a sentient, matriarchal species with a culture that is much older than ours. Recent confrontations between orcas and humans off the Iberian peninsula have sparked interest in the power of these marine mammals and what they represent. As we continue to interact with them, it may be time to readdress our understanding of these animals and their behavior.

Orca Intelligence

an orca breaching the water swimming fast

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are highly intelligent marine mammals with complex social structures. According to Orca Torch, their brains can weigh as much as 15 pounds, and some evidence suggests that their IQ is equivalent to that of a 15- or 16-year-old human.

Orcas are apex predators and deploy a remarkable range of learned hunting strategies. They have been observed beaching themselves to snatch seals from the shore in Argentina, creating waves in Antarctica to push seals off floating ice, and coordinating attacks to kill blue whales near western Australia. They pass these behaviors on to their offspring, indicating a high level of cognitive abilities.

In addition to their hunting strategies, orcas exhibit complicated social rituals, including elaborate greeting ceremonies. They seem to exhibit behavior more commonly associated with primates, which mirrors human emotions such as friendship and grief. Orcas have even been known to occasionally get caught up in fads, a temporary behavior started by one or two individuals, adopted by others, and then swiftly abandoned.

What Scientists Think

orcas affected by global warming and prey depletion

Recent observations of orcas suggest that they may be getting smarter. In Spain, at least 20 Iberian orcas have been targeting and ramming small sailing boats, using boat rudders as playthings. This behavior is believed to have been learned from their elders, and young calves appear to be copying adult orcas. This “novel behavior” is currently confined to this small, endangered Iberian population, but it is an example of how orcas can learn new behaviors and adapt to changing circumstances.

Similarly, a small population of orcas in the Pacific Northwest has been intimidating and killing young porpoises for decades. This behavior has been passed on through generations and across social groupings, suggesting that it is a learned behavior. The reasons for this behavior are not entirely clear, but it may be a form of social play, hunting practice, or “mis-mothering” behavior, where the orca tries to care for the other animal.

In addition to these learned behaviors, several orca communities worldwide have also learned to poach fish caught for humans from the lines used by commercial fisheries. This shows that orcas are capable of learning new hunting techniques and strategies, and adapting to changes in their environment.

How Orcas Are Getting Smarter

swimming orca on odontoceti suborder of dolphin family

According to marine ecologist Josh McInnes, orca brains are unlikely to have fundamentally changed over a few decades or even a century or two. However, humans may be indirectly contributing to making orcas “smarter” by changing ocean conditions. For example, orcas have been observed raiding longline and trawl fisheries, which shows that they can innovate and learn new tricks in response to human presence in the sea. Climate change may also force orcas to rely more heavily on one another for learning.

Orcas are fast learners, which means they can teach each other some “terrifying tricks” and become smarter as a group. Some of their seemingly new tricks may actually be age-old behaviors that have only recently been documented by humans. Orcas have complex social structures, and social learning plays an important role in their culture. They have regional dialects that are passed down through generations, and they have been observed solving puzzles and communicating with each other using a variety of vocalizations, including whistles and clicks.

However, orcas in captivity may experience stress and noise pollution, which can negatively impact their memory and problem-solving abilities. Additionally, captivity may limit their ability to communicate and exhibit complex emotions such as grief. Overall, orcas are intelligent and adaptable animals that exhibit a variety of cultural behaviors and dialects, and their evolution may be influenced by human activity in the ocean.

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