5 things you think you know about killer whales that are actually wrong

by | May 22, 2023 | Science

Orcas swimming in a pod in Southeast Alaska.Ron Sanford/Getty ImagesThe name “killer whale” comes from the fact that they kill whales.But killer whales, or orcas, are actually members of the dolphin family.Here are five of the biggest misconceptions about the species.Killer whales, or orcas, are similar to humans in a lot of ways.They’re highly social creatures that travel in pods and communicate in their own special language.They’re also highly curious and sensitive — one orca off the coast of Iceland even adopted a baby pilot whale, for example. Another orca was so traumatized by an encounter with a boat that scientists think she taught other orcas to attack boats, sparking a slew of recent incidents.But there are a few common misconceptions about these amazing animals.Killer whales aren’t whalesKiller whales are not actually whales, but dolphins. While they are the biggest members of the dolphin family, they are still much smaller than the biggest whales — orcas can get up to 32 feet long while blue whales can get up to 100 feet long, according to the Ocean Conservancy.Like other members of the dolphin family, orcas’ bodies are built to be aerodynamic, and like dolphins, they’re some of the fastest creatures in the ocean, reaching speeds over 30 miles per hour.The name “killer” whale isn’t from killing humansOrcas are not called killer whales because they’re whales that kill humans. In fact, there are no verified accounts of an orca killing a human in the wild. Orca whales are curious animals that will approach your boat.Portland Press Herald / Contributor / Getty ImagesThese creatures got this name because they kill whales. Ancient sailors originally called them “whale killers” because they would prey on whales much larger than them, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation.Over the years, that got reversed to “killer whale,” leading to the misconception that they are a member of the whale family.It’s not just captive orcas with collapsed dorsal finsSome orcas develop a collapsed dorsal fin while in captivity, but the phenomenon doesn’t just affect captive orcas.Story continues Young children watch an Orca with a flopped over dorsal fin, at SeaWorld in San Diego, California.Mike Blake/ReutersThough more rare, orcas in the wild can get a curved or flopped-over fin on top of their bodies, which typically happens from stress, injury, malnutrition, or dehydration, according to Ocean Wise.If it doesn’t collapse, an orca’s dorsal fin can stand up to six feet tall, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation.Killer whales don’t eat just anything that comes their wayContrary to popular belief, orcas are actually pretty picky eaters. An orca, or killer whale, speeds in a straight line towards the beach before launching itself onto the sand to hunt baby sea lions in Argentina’s Patagonian area of Punta Norte.Enrique Marcarian/ReutersThe whole species does have a wide range of food, including fish, seals and sea …

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