Orca Culture May Be Key to Understanding Their Genetic Evolution

It’s Orca Awareness Month and with it comes some interesting news from the scientific community. According to a new study out of the University of Bern in Switzerland, orcas may have evolved genetically along with their own distinct ‘cultures,’ mirroring the cultural evolution of humans.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that orcas could develop these abilities. With large brains and complex social communities, they are often described as highly intelligent and evolved animals. However, prior to this, there wasn’t much solid evidence that their evolution was caused by their own unique cultures rather than simple environmental factors.

In humans we can see the way genes and culture can play out. For instance those who live in agriculture-based societies tend to eat more starch than those who rely on meat-based diets. When scientists looked at genomes in these different groups they found that those who lived in an agriculture-based society had genes that reflected this diet variation – allowing for enzymes that easily broke down starches.

Scientists studied these genetic variances in orcas by taking skin biopsies from several different pods. The predatory nature of each of these groups varied. Some pods primarily went after mammals while others ate fish or penguins.

Food preferences and hunting techniques are often unique to particular pods, with hunting skills passed down to younger members. Some orcas are known for going after larger prey, even swimming up to shores and lunging at their intended meal, whereas other orcas prefer to hunt in packs and surround schools of fish in deeper water.

Further, orcas are unique to study in the animal kingdom as they exist all over the world, from temperate climates to tropical or arctic temperatures.

While former studies have attributed different types of orca species as the reason for this behavior, this study attempted to show that, “behavioural variation among ecotypes likely results from ecological, genetic and cultural variation and the interaction between them, rather than a single process explaining all behavioural variance.”

Over the course of the study, scientists found that the changes in orca genes had links to diet, climate and reproduction. These findings, they say, “broadly imply an interaction between genetically and culturally heritable evolutionary changes in killer whale ecotypes.”

Or in other words: it seems orca genes undergo changes as cultural shifts take place within orca communities.

This could change the way we look at protections and habitat conservation regarding these animals, and give us insight into their overall evolution.

For instance, orcas off the Washington Coast are considered endangered with one of the primary causes being lack of their food. According to Howard Garrett who co-founded of the Orca Network, “Our efforts are primarily to contribute to salmon restoration and the awareness of that linkage between the Chinook salmon and the health of the southern residents.”

Garrett says that the orcas in this region have unique “rules of behavior, of diet, of mating, of associations, and of their calls,” which will have to be observed as environmentalists attempt to increase their food supplies. And there is hope that, with more understanding of how genes evolve as cultural shifts play out under the waves, conservationists might be able to unlock new ways to protect these species.

Photo Credit: Allen Shimada NOAA/Wikimedia


Amanda M
Amanda McConnell12 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Danuta W
Danuta W12 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Sue H
Sue H12 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Why bother to study them? The problem is humans.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

Agree with Marianne C.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran3 years ago


Miss D.
Shari F3 years ago

The rest of the email:
I agree with the CBD &I call on you to prioritise the decision regarding the vital protections that these whales so desperately need. As Giulia Good Stefani, staff attorney for the NRDC states ‘Protection of the whale’s winter range is years overdue.” I implore you to not extend this decision by yet more years but to make a decision in favour of the whales immediately.

Also, these orcas are famous! Colleen Weiler, WDC’s Rekos Fellow for Orca Conservation makes the point that “People around the world are invested in the future of these orcas….Losing the Southern Residents would not only impact their immediate ecosystem, it would be the loss of a well-loved group of orcas known across the globe.” The Southern Residents are the most intensively studied group of orca in the whole world. For Fisheries to drag its heels in protecting these animals, with all this data that is already available, is incomprehensible and does not nothing to enhance the reputation of the organisation in the eyes of the world.
Please help these killer whales now, when they really need it, not a few years down the line when their population will be even more depleted. Thank you.

Miss D.
Shari F3 years ago

My email to Fisheries: I write in support of the recent 100,000 plus petition sent to Fisheries seeking Critical Habitat Protections beyond Puget Sound for the Southern Resident orcas. I understand that conservation groups including the Centre for Biological Diversity and NRDC, amongst others, plus more than 100,000 individuals, last week called on Fisheries to immediately expand protected critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales along the West Coast.

I support this because the population remains critically endangered with just 83 individuals left.

I welcome the plans that Fisheries Service announced last year to expand orcas’ habitat protections to 9,000 miles along the West Coast. As I am sure you are aware, the new habitat designation would protect key foraging and migration areas for the whales off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.

However, I am deeply concerned that Fisheries said it would not make a final decision until the end of next year - with final implementation not until at least 2018.

Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the CBD, has publicly stated “The evidence is clear these killer whales need more protection to avoid spiralling toward extinction. The Fisheries Service has the data it needs to make this decision now and it should…..Scientists & the general public both say [that] waiting to take action could have disastrous consequences.â€

Miss D.
Shari F3 years ago

Frances Bell: Yeah interesting but right now shouldn't we be spending money on getting them the protection they need?
I agree. The Centre for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council are campaigning to extend protected critical habitat for the Southern Residents so that their foraging and migrating areas would be protected. This is way overdue and the Nat. Marine Fisheries Service are trying to extend the time they take to make a decision on this, saying that they need to carry out more surveys to make a decision in 2017 with the first steps to take action in 2018. As there are only 83 S.Residents left, they don not have the luxury of time. In addition, Fisheries has all the info it needs to make a decision on critical habitat already. More info on this link: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2016/killer-whale-06-06-2016.html You can write direct to Fisheries telling them to hurry up their decision making on this email address: Kris.Gamble@noaa.gov I’ll put my email on the next post in case anyone wants to use it as a template.