Orca females share a trait with human females: they go through menopause. At about the age of 40, killer whales reach the end of their reproductive productivity, but it’s possible that they can live for decades longer than that. Now, researchers are understanding the role that these menopausal females play, and it turns out that they are pretty important to the survival of their families.
This really speaks to the social intricacies of killer whale societies. A possible explanation for human menopause is that even after females lose the ability to reproduce, they pass on valuable information to their children and grandchildren, in turn helping them to survive and reproduce. Thus, humans can lead long lives even after menopause, because from an evolutionary standpoint, their contributions are still extremely valuable. Just a theory- but interesting.
Like humans, it seems that orca families depend on these menopausal “grandmother” orcas. Scientists weren’t sure as to the reason why, but results from a 9-year study on wild orcas suggest that these experienced orcas are especially helpful when food is scarce. Understandably, older orcas have “been there, done that” and are able to teach their younger family members the ropes. By passing on information to their families (in this case, how and where to find the food they need to survive), these menopausal whales are valuable members of orca societies.
This kind of research helps scientists understand more about the social and family structures of these beautiful animals, which in turn can help with conservation efforts. To read more about this fascinating research, click here.