Researchers Track Killer Whales In Antarctica

San Diego-Based Scientists Find Common Traits In Whales, Humans

Two local scientists just back from Antarctica are sharing their groundbreaking research on killer whales.

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La Jolla-based researchers Bob Pitman and John Durban set out to better understand a once misunderstood creature. The researchers' findings indicated orcas may have a lot in common with an unlikely mammal -- man.

Pitman and Durban, who are with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center/NOAA, spent a month studying the world's top marine predator.

"[The] killer whale is the largest, most ferocious predator on the planet," said Pitman.

Case in point: the way orcas pop up and "spy hop, or evaluate, seals resting on ice floes. The leader then disappears, and Pitman said when it is down below "it calls in the rest of the group."

Shortly after, the group unleashes a coordinated maneuver using their tails to send a wave over the ice floe. The wave washes the seal into the water and into the whales' waiting mouths.

"It's amazing when you have an intelligent social animal that hunts together for decades you come up with this kind of cooperative feeding," said Pitman.

The group of whales is actually a family, and the researchers found that females rule. A matriarch can live up to 100 years, while males live about 60 years. Additionally, the females are very protective of their calves.

"They're a much more stable family unit than even human beings," according to Pitman.

The types of whales discovered so far range from the large wave washers to the smaller deep-diving fish eaters. A type of plankton makes the whales look yellow, but that coating sloughs off after a quick trip to tropical waters, according to tracking data.

The satellite tracking tag is attached using a simple crossbow system. Researchers fire the tag at the dorsal fin, and there are barbs sticking out of the tag. When the tag sticks, the rest of the arrow just bounces off and falls away.

Pitman called killer whales "tremendously intelligent animals" and highly social creatures.

"The more we learn about them, the more like human beings they are," said Pitman.

For more information on the research, visit swfsc.noaa.gov/prd-killerwhale.

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