What caused killer whales to behave so dramatically this year? – DNyuz

What drove killer whales’ dramatic behavior this year?

It’s easy to be misunderstood with the word “killer” in your name.

However, it seems that this was a very wild year for killer whales. From “attacking” and sinking several boats off southwestern Europe to hunting great white sharks around South Africa and Australia, the black-and-white behemoths appeared to live up to their moniker in 2023.

Since the spring of this year, the orca’s surprising behaviour has brought one of the oceans most dangerous predators to the forefront. It has sparked internet memes as well as debates about the whales plotting revenge.

Yet for scientists, the recent orca antics have been more fascinating than fearsome, and some say the highly intelligent marine animals have shown us how much there still is to learn about them.

Perhaps the biggest orca news of the year was the string of puzzling incidents off the Iberian Peninsula, in which killer whales appeared to be ramming boats. In May, three orcas struck the rudder and a side of a sailing yacht in the region, causing it to sink.

The “attack” came amid an observed increase in encounters between orcas and boats since 2020. Monika Wieland Shields, the director of the Orca Behavior Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, said several hundred incidents have been reported in that time.

At least four vessels sank as a result of the damage in the past two years, she said.

No human injuries or deaths were reported — and in most cases, the whales didn’t sink the boats. The incidents were so well-publicized that memes announcing an “orca revolt” and the beginning of “orca Wars .” spread across social media. Many users believed the whales had finally fought back.

But Shields stated that the incidents stoked real fears, along with the fun.

“We’ve had so many people come out here to where I am in Washington state this year, and they’re asking: ‘Is it safe to view whales here? How big is the boat we’re going on? Is there a chance the whales are going to attack this boat?'” she said. “I do worry that people aren’t going to leave with a respect and fascination for the whales but rather a fear of the whales that’s maybe not warranted.”

Among experts, the incidents off the Iberian Peninsula were baffling, and they sparked debates about the whales’ intentions.

Many experts believe that the orcas were not attacking.

“They’re not afraid of boats, and there’s nothing for them to eat there,” said Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. “They’re intelligent, social animals, and they live in what I think is probably an under-stimulating environment for their mental capacity.”

As such, he said, the whales sometimes stumble on something that they think is interesting and repeat that behavior for a while.

Shields said that in video from some of the incidents, the orcas didn’t seem to deliberately target the boats’ rudders or hulls. She thought that the orcas were likely behaving out of curiosity, and playing.

Josh McInnes, a behavioral ecologist at the University of British Columbia, agreed and noted that orcas are known to engage in social learning by spreading or picking up behaviors among their pods. That could explain the string of boat encounters, he said.

McInnes likened the behavior to roughhousing.

“Killer whales are very physical,” he said, “and because they’re 25 feet long and weigh up to 80,000 pounds, when they are physical with an object, it can be a little bit more forceful.”

Given their size, the whales would more likely inflict far more damage to vessels and yachts if they were carrying out coordinated assaults, Shields said.

What’s more, the idea that the whales are rising up and fighting back isn’t consistent with what scientists know about orcas.

“Killer Whales want to enjoy themselves,” Pitman stated. Revenge in nature isn’t useful. It’s not adaptive at all — unless you’re a human, I guess.”

But it wasn’t just orcas’ encounters with boats that made headlines this year. Whales were also praised for their brutal hunting methods.

In Australia, near Portland in October, the carcass a great-white shark, with its liver removed, washed up on shore. Researchers determined that killer whales were to blame.

Orcas don’t typically prey on sharks, McInnes said, but they are capable of it, and they have been observed doing it before in waters off Australia, Africa and even the Pacific Northwest.

And what was the reason for missing organs in sharks? Experts said it was for practical reasons.

“Sharks in general are not very nutritious for killer whales, because they’re made of cartilage,” McInnes said. “But the liver is full of fat and lipids, so it’s a very nutritious part of the body to eat.”

Orcas have been known to target the liver when preying on sharks in the past. Since 2017, scientists have followed a hunting spree by two killer whales named Port and Starboard, which have killed at least eight great white sharks off South Africa and left their liver-less bodies to wash up on beaches.

But orca behavior documented at disparate locations around the globe isn’t usually connected. McInnes stated that different killer whale populations are genetically unique and do not socialize.

Studying all observed incidents can, however, provide scientists with broader insights into what orcas are capable of and how they live.

Shields said she has “mixed feelings” about the attention orcas attracted in 2023. If anything, she said, she hopes the headlines inspire people to engage more in conservation efforts.

“I hope people will take these stories away with a fascination for and an appreciation of orcas,” Shields stated. “They’re found in every ocean, and they’re all over the planet. There’s probably a population of orcas in the nearest salt water from where you live. So there’s a lot to be learned.”

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