Orca Menopause: The Role of Wise Elders


Granny and Ruffles, Active Pass Aug 31/09: photo K. Cullen

January 7, 2016
The Editor, Times-Colonist:

An article in the January 7, 2016 Times Colonist  about the death in captivity of Tilikum, an Icelandic orca who was captive in Sea World Orlando and formerly captive in the now defunct SeaLand of the Pacific in Oak Bay, refer  to the incorrect “ponytail grab” version of events when Tilikum killed Orlando orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.


That was SeaWorld’s initial version of events, a version that blamed Dawn for carelessness, and which has been proven by video footage not to be what happened.

Tilikum took Dawn Brancheau by the arm. He wasn’t playing with her ponytail. Orca intelligence is undisputed. The “ponytail version” undermines Brancheau’s status, undermines Tilikum’s decision making and is an effort to ignore his rage.  Tilikum knew what he was doing. He savaged her body and left her whistle at the bottom of the pool – the whistle, the symbol of control. Video (“Slow Motion Footage of Dawn With Tilikum Seconds Before”) can be found on The Orca Project blog, April 20, 2011 post “SeaWorld Trainer Death Theory Debunked as a Ponytail Tale”.

As a related thought, I hope soon “anthropomorphism” will be universally seen for what it is – a human delusion that any individual of another species who demonstrates intelligence, thought, planning, decision making, will, and emotion is “aww, kind of  like us”.

Post- “Blackfish”, people will know that orcas and cetaceans are “the minds in the waters”, and that orca and cetacean captivity is an atrocity.

One of the  Southern Residents, Lolita Tokitae of L pod, taken from her family  in August 1970,  languishes  in the officially substandard Miami Seaquarium. Will she be next to die alone in a concrete box? / ~DM

January 15, 2016
The Editor, Times-Colonist:

Wait a minute. Menopausal orcas are “relegated”  to adopting roles as wise elders (Times-Colonist January 15, Competition may have role in orca menopause”)?

The meaning of relegate is “consign or dismiss to an inferior rank or position”, which hardly describes the function and role of a wise  elder.

I’m a member of another species that features menopause in  older females, and as one, let me share my relief in not being pregnant and bearing children for my entire life, not washing diapers my entire life ( I know, orcas have that part easier), not breastfeeding and eating enough to do that my entire life,  not sorting out toddler squabbles my entire life and not caring that males don’t think I’m – family newspaper so I’ll soft-pedal this – a candidate for participation in species continuation via reproductive activities .

This entire article is written as factual statements until it’s all dismissed as pure conjecture in the third from last paragraph in which the main researcher in the study it’s based on is quoted as saying  “We simply don’t know what the menopause is for in these animals.”

Everyone who isn’t an orca in this article is a male writer or researcher. Let a  female tell you what menopause is for. It’s for  females to take on roles as leaders and as wise elders and  to provide support to their families and to society with a long term view and broad experience and perspective.  This can’t in any way be considered “relegation” unless Prof. Darren  Croft (the lead researcher) thinks that reproduction- based competition for male attention and subsequently eating enough food to breast feed (yes, orcas breast feed) are the pinnacles of female life on the land and in the sea. / ~DM (Original article published in Times Colonist below the Psychology Today excerpt.)


Psychology Today, January 15, 2017, G.A. Bradshaw (some quotes fro Howard Garrett of Orca Network in the article):

Subsequently, from this moral neuropsychological and cultural perspective, the “mother-daughter conflict” hypothesis of Orca menopause seems highly implausible. While it characterizes western human culture, values, and even academic institutions, competitive, “dog-eat-dog” behavior has no place in the restrained, refined prosocial world of Orcinus orca. These Whales are not passive victims of “my genes made me do it.” Rather, Orcas exhibit highly emotional and social intelligence with brains, minds, and morals that exceed those of modern humans.


[Times Colonist January 17 link to article below unavailable; use Press Progress / log in.]

Darren Croft makes lots of definitive statements but then says “We simply don’t know what the menopause is for these animals,” said Croft. “The physiological and behavioural consequences of that, we’re not quite clear because we’re not able to ask them.”

January 17, 2016 Times Colonist: Dirk Meissner, Canadian Press VICTORIA — Mother-daughter conflicts rooted in a tug-of-war between competition and cooperation are helping explain why killer whales go through menopause, says a study released Thursday.

Killer whales are one of only three species, including humans, who go through menopause. The animals often live for decades after giving birth to their final calves and are relegated to adopting roles for their pods as grandmothers and wise elders who know where to search for food.

Prof. Darren Croft of the University of Exeter in England led the new study, which used 43 years of data gathered by whale researchers at Canada’s Department and Fisheries and Oceans on the West Coast and the Center for Whale Research in the United States at Friday Harbor, Washington. The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

Croft, who has spent time in the Salish Sea on both sides of the border near Vancouver Island observing the animals, said scientists have long considered why killer whales who stop having calves in their 30s and 40s have lifespans into their 80s, 90s and beyond. Researchers wondered what prevents the whales from continuing to reproduce during their lifespans.

“It turns out to be a conflict between mothers and daughters,” said Croft in a telephone interview Exeter. “The younger females are under stronger selection to basically invest more in competition, to pull harder in a game of tug-of-war with their mothers, in order to be able to reproduce and to take more fish and share less.”

He said the study concluded older female whales go through menopause because they lose out in the reproductive competition with their daughters. It found when mother and daughter killer whales breed at the same time, the death rate of offspring born to older mothers is almost twice that of young mothers.

Much of the reproductive conflict between mothers and their daughters stems from their reliance on food sharing, he said. The whales hunt together, sharing salmon, and often rely on their mothers for food for years, Croft said.

“We don’t yet know how this competition and conflict unfolds in the family,” he said. “It’s likely that these old females are more likely to be sharing the food in the group, whereas the young females, we would predict, would be eating more for themselves.”

Croft said the research was based on observations of the southern and northern resident killer whale populations in waters off Vancouver Island and the U.S. The southern resident population is about 78 whales and there are between 200 and 250 northern residents.

“This prediction has been in the literature now for six or seven years, that conflict might be important and this is the first test outside of humans that that’s actually going on,” Croft said.

He said the researchers know the whales stop reproducing at some later point in their lives, but little else is known about menopause, including the change it might have on the lives of older females.

“We simply don’t know what the menopause is for these animals,” said Croft. “The physiological and behavioural consequences of that, we’re not quite clear because we’re not able to ask them.”

He said the researchers observed a southern resident whale nicknamed Granny, who died late last year at an age estimated up to 105 years.

“Granny, I think, is perhaps the most iconic whale in that population,” Croft said. “She was always in the lead of her family group and that’s where some of these ideas and hypotheses around these old females being leaders came from.”

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