Orcas form very close and complex relationships with one another, similar to how humans and apes do. One thing that sets them apart from other mammals in their social lives is that they stay with their mothers their entire lives. Like elephants, orcas are matrilineal and the eldest female is the leader of her group of whales. Her female descendants all travel in the group with her. Several families form pods if they are loosely related. Pods consist of usually four or five families. Families always stay together, but pods may drift apart and then regroup for weeks or months.
Just like pods are made up of families, clans are made up of pods. Clans are made up of pods that share an older heritage. Clans also share a dialect. Orcas from different areas and families speak differently, both in the number and pattern of calls they make, and clans are determined based on these dialects. Clans make up communities, which are determined by typical range rather than relation or dialect. Clans in a community do not have to speak in the same way as one another.
Orcas learn how to speak through their mothers. They have a similar vocal pattern from birth, but a smaller vocabulary which expands as they grow older. Orcas make three types of calls: whistles, clicks, and pulses. In the North Pacific, orcas eat mainly salmon, and salmon can’t hear their calls. This means that orcas living in the North Pacific are a lot more talkative than in other parts of the world, where the prey can hear their calls. Other orcas use muted or shortened clicks to communicate, in the hoped that they’ll not be noticed.
Speech isn’t the only thing that orca calves learn from their mothers. Often, the mother will push the calf up onto the beach to teach them how to get back into the water. The mother always waits nearby to rescue the calf if need be. Orcas also like to play throughout their lives, such as stealing fish off of fishing lines and moving objects further away that humans are trying to reach. It doesn’t take long to figure out when humans are trying to get around them, either, and still find a way to play pranks.
Orcas particularly are at risk from oil spills and hazardous waste litter because the toxins are the most saturated for those at the top of their food chains. Disturbances from boats also scare away their prey and make it hard to hunt and the noise from motors can drown out their communication. Luckily, people have come to fear orcas less in past decades and attempts to integrate captive whales into wild populations have been successful.
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