Experts Call for the Speedy Release of Killer Whales and Beluga Whales from the “Whale Prison” in Primorye

November 29, 2018

Experts believe that the killer whales and beluga whales kept in the bay of Central Primorsky Territory for sale in foreign aquariums should be released as soon as possible, otherwise they will die.

“Delay in releasing killer whales into the wild and in transferring the beluga whales to the rehabilitation regime, and the lack of public and expert control can lead to grave consequences for cetaceans. This is the general opinion of the experts, ”Dmitry Lisitsyn, head of the regional public organization (RPO) Sakhalin Environmental Watch, told Interfax-Far East.

According to him, the longer they sit in crowded conditions and in tight containers, the greater the likelihood of deterioration of their health from stagnant water, poor diet and stress.

  1. Lisitsyn stressed that according to the unanimous opinion of experts, killer whales should be released from the bay as soon as possible.

“They will still be able to find their families who have already left the area of ​​the Shantar Islands and are now migrating to the Kuril Islands and then to the more southern areas of the ocean,” he said.

He added that for belugas it is necessary to create an expert commission of scientists specializing in cetaceans, veterinarians of the aquarium, microbiologists, as well as divers and underwater operators.

“It is necessary to conduct a comprehensive survey of the white whales and clearly separate – who can be released now (who can survive in the wild conditions – IF) and those who need to be grown and adapted. The information gathered by the expert group should be provided to an even wider expert community “in order to make a common and most correct decision,” said D. Lisitsyn.

According to him, Medium Bay is quite suitable for adapting babies to belingas, since these conditions, in contrast to the aquarium, are more close to their natural habitat. As the kids grow, they could gradually expand open-air cages, launch wild fish, imitating hunting conditions, in order to release animals into the sea in the spring adapted to independent living. But according to scientists, other people should take care of belugas, but not trappers.

As reported, at the end of October, Greenpeace Russia and the Sakhalin Environmental Watch public organization stated that 11 killer whales and 90 belugas were illegally kept in the enclosures of Srednyaya Bay in the south of Primorsky Krai. According to zoodefenders, belugas and killer whales were brought to Primorye before being sold to foreign aquariums and zoos. SC initiated a criminal case under Part 3 of Art. 256 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (illegal extraction of aquatic biological resources). On instructions from the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation, specialists from the Pacific Oceanological Institute are examining animals to determine if they can be released into the wild.

Source: Maritime News of Russia

Article Found on Maritime Herald.com

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THE COURT SEIZED ON THE ORCAS AND BELUGAS CAUGHT FOR SALE IN CHINA

November 24, 2018

The court seized on the orcas and belugas caught for sale in China The court in Vladivostok seized 11 orcas and belugas ‘ 90, discovered the animal in Nakhodka. Animal rights activists suggest that animals were caught for sale in China. The investigative Committee opened a criminal case on illegal fishing. About the arrest of the animals informed the city the site of Vladivostok Vl.ru and non-profit organization “marine mammal Council”. Judgement was delivered on 21 November, but became aware of it today from the letter to the Investigative Committee to Rosprirodnadzor. At the end of October it became known that in the Middle Bay in a remote area Finds contains 11 orcas and 90 Beluga whales caught in Russian waters. According to Russian Greenpeace, pet owners planned to sell them in Chinese aquariums. Commercial exploitation of dolphins is prohibited in Russia by law, but the animals were caught in the cultural and educational quota. The price of one orca in dolphinariums and aquariums China reaches from one to 15 million dollars. Catch animals has caused an outcry among environmentalists. November 16, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on illegal catch of whales and belugas. According to authorities, the mammals are young, and their prey is prohibited. On Thursday, the press service of the Agency, the Agency issuing quotas for the catch of marine animals, said that the Ministry warned the General Prosecutor’s office about the inadmissibility of violation of the law when granting rights to catch cultural and educational purposes. The Agency said in response that all quotas are issued legally.

Сообщение The court seized on the orcas and belugas caught for sale in China появились сначала на Latin script’s.

Source: duv-vest.com

100 Orcas and Whales Are Trapped in ‘Whale Jails’

November 22, 2018

An estimated 11 orcas and up to 90 belugas are currently being held in what’s being dubbed as a ‘whale jail.‘ According to media reports, prosecutors are now investigating a site near the city of Nakhodka, where dozens of orcas and belugas have been confined to small enclosures to determine whether they’re being kept illegally.

According to the Telegraph, which cited local media, it’s the largest number of whales to ever be held in small temporary enclosure, while some of them have been there since July.

Now, an international group of marine scientists are calling on Russia to stop capturing orcas from the wild. Even though permits for capture are only issued for scientific or educational reasons in Russia, activists have raised concerns they’re really being captured for commercial purposes and being sold to marine parks in China for entertainment. Unfortunately, the industry in China is growing, which has increased the demand for them. Capturing orcas is big business – Orcas can reportedly be sold for up to $6 million, while belugas are worth thousands.

Sadly, according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), 13 orca captures will be allowed this year, while the number doesn’t include any who are injured or killed during the process.

In response, 25 marine mammal biologists from around the world are urging the Russian Federal Service for Overseeing Natural Resources to stop captures of wild orcas.

They argue that not only are these captures highly stressful for individuals involved, but they also damage complex social structures and are putting the future survival of orca populations at risk. To see how damaging removing even just a few individuals can be, we just need to look at the Southern Resident Killer Whales who have yet to recover from captures that took place decades ago off the coast of Washington.

“These whales are being captured before Russian authorities complete an environmental assessment to determine whether such actions are sustainable,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for AWI. “Aside from poor management practice, captures are without a doubt traumatic and harmful to the whales taken and the family members they leave behind. The science is in on this, but Russian authorities are ignoring it.”

We can never undo the injustices that captive orcas and other cetaceans have been subjected to, but we can certainly create a future where we respect them and protect them in their rightful place in the wild. Considering what we’ve learned about cetaceans, it’s heartbreaking to think about the impact this industry has had on them. Putting them in captivity can destroy family bonds, cause premature death or injuries and inflict psychological harm – all for nothing more than our curiosity and amusement.

Unfortunately, this trade won’t stop until public interest is gone and it’s no longer profitable, which makes avoiding facilities that hold them captive critical.

Source: care2.com

Russia to ban capture of killer whales and belugas in 2019

November 20, 2018

The catching of killer whales and belugas will be prohibited in Russia in 2019, a report prepared by the state ecological expertise of the Far Eastern department of the Russian Federal Agency for Supervision of the Use of Natural Resource (Rosprirodnadzor) said.


The news about 90 belugas and 13 orcas being kept in a “whale prison” in Srednaya Bay near Nakhodka, in the Far East of Russia, generated an international scandal. It was reported that the animals had been caught to be subsequently sold to sea aquariums in China. A criminal case was initiated, while many people arrange protest actions throughout the country, including in Vladivostok, demanding the capture of marine mammals should be banned.

In Vladivostok, as many as 30 people gathered for a meeting to protest against the capture of killer whales and belugas. The activists believe that holding marine mammals in captivity in sea aquariums should be banned throughout the world. This problem is not limited to the situation with the “whale prison” in Russia’s Far East, because many people buy tickets to go to oceanariums and turn a blind eye to the problem, the activists say.

According to the investigators, the inspection of the so-called “whale prison” in Srednaya Bay revealed that fishing companies had no relevant documents for catching belugas and killer whales.   Specialists also found that eleven killer whales and 90 belugas did not reach sexual maturity, while 13 of them were younger than 12 months. Their capture is a serious violation of the Russian law, therefore a criminal case has already been initiated.

Source: pravdareport.com

Alternate Article: maritimeherald.com


Orca ‘apocalypse’: half of killer whales doomed to die from pollution

September 27, 2018

At least half of the world’s killer whale populations are doomed to extinction due to toxic and persistent pollution of the oceans, according to a major new study.

Although the poisonous chemicals, PCBs, have been banned for decades, they are still leaking into the seas. They become concentrated up the food chain; as a result, killer whales, the top predators, are the most contaminated animals on the planet. Worse, their fat-rich milk passes on very high doses to their newborn calves.

PCB concentrations found in killer whales can be 100 times safe levels and severely damage reproductive organs, cause cancer and damage the immune system. The new research analysed the prospects for killer whale populations over the next century and found those offshore from industrialised nations could vanish as soon as 30-50 years.

Among those most at risk are the UK’s last pod, where a recent death revealed one of the highest PCB levels ever recorded. Others off Gibraltar, Japan and Brazil and in the north-east Pacific are also in great danger. Killer whales are one of the most widespread mammals on earth but have already been lost in the North Sea, around Spain and many other places.

“It is like a killer whale apocalypse,” said Paul Jepson at the Zoological Society of London, part of the international research team behind the new study. “Even in a pristine condition they are very slow to reproduce.” Healthy killer whales take 20 years to reach peak sexual maturity and 18 months to gestate a calf.

PCBs were used around the world since the 1930s in electrical components, plastics and paints but their toxicity has been known for 50 years. They were banned by nations in the 1970s and 1980s but 80% of the 1m tonnes produced have yet to be destroyed and are still leaking into the seas from landfills and other sources.

The international Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants came into force in 2004 to tackle the issue, but Jepson said the clean-up is way behind schedule. “I think the Stockholm Convention is failing,” he said. “The only area where I am optimistic is the US. They alone produced 50% of all PCBs, but they have been getting PCB levels down consistently for decades. All we have done in Europe is ban them and then hope they go away.”

The researchers said PCBs are just one pollutant found in killer whales, with “a long list of additional known and as yet unmeasured contaminants present”. Further problems for killer whales include the loss of key prey species such as tuna and sharks to overfishing and also growing underwater noise pollution.

The new research, published in the journal Science, examined PCB contamination in 351 killer whales, the largest analysis yet. The scientists then took existing data on how PCBs affect calf survival and immune systems in whales and used this to model how populations will fare in the future. “Populations of Japan, Brazil, Northeast Pacific, Strait of Gibraltar, and the United Kingdom are all tending toward complete collapse,” they concluded.

Lucy Babey, deputy director at conservation group Orca, said: “Our abysmal failures to control chemical pollution ending up in our oceans has caused a killer whale catastrophe on an epic scale. It is essential that requirements to dispose safely of PCBs under the Stockholm Convention are made legally binding at the next meeting in May 2019 to help stop this scandal.” Scientists have previously found “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution even in the 10km-deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.

“This new study is a global red alert on the state of our oceans,” said Jennifer Lonsdale, chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s whales group. “If the UK government wants its [proposed] Environment Act to be world-leading, it must set ambitious targets on PCB disposal and protect against further chemical pollution of our waters.”

The research shows that killer whale populations in the high north, off Norway, Iceland, Canada and the Faroes, are far less contaminated due to their distance from major PCB sources. ”The only thing that gives me hope about killer whales in the longer term is, yes, we are going to lose populations all over the industrialised areas, but there are populations that are doing reasonably well in the Arctic,” said Jepson.

If a global clean-up, which would take decades, can be achieved, these populations could eventually repopulate empty regions, he said, noting that killer whales are very intelligent, have strong family bonds and hunt in packs. “It is an incredibly adaptive species – they have been able to [live] from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between.”

He praised the billion-dollar “superfund” clean-ups in the US, such as in the Hudson River and Puget Sound, where the polluter has paid most of the costs: “The US is going way beyond the Stockholm Convention because they know how toxic PCBs are.”

Source: The Guardian.com

Young orca has ‘rare and very emotional’ close encounter with boaters

“He is very playful and surprises us every field season.”

December 6, 2017

Researchers in Russia were pleasantly surprised when a juvenile orca cozied up to their tiny inflatable boat in a playful but emotional close encounter.

A volunteer with the Far East Russia Orca Project captured video of the encounter over the summer, but its first apparent media exposure outside of Russia came when the Mirror posted the video Wednesday:

Clearly the boaters are moved by the close encounter as the orca swims next to the inflatable boat—close enough to touch—and seems to nudge it on one of its passes.

“Rare and very emotional meeting with young and curious orca AV102a from the Hookie family in Avacha Bay (Kamchatka, Russia),” Dmitrij Voronov told Newsflare about his video.

FEROP reacted on Facebook about the encounter by saying, “He is very playful and surprises us every field season.”

Kamchatka is the only place in Russia where orcas are studied, according to the FEROP website.

“Russian orcas are probably not endangered but when considered as various individual breeding populations their numbers are much less and need to be monitored and the population structure clarified,” FEROP says. “In recent years, Japanese and other aquariums have taken an interest in obtaining Russian orcas, due to the proximity of the orcas in waters due north of Japan, as well as the lack of protection for orcas in these waters…

“Fisheries Department continues to approve a yearly quota of 10 animals.

“There is still much to learn in order to understand the Russian Far East killer whale populations and we hope that our study will help prevent their further capture and will lead to a greater understanding of their population structure and to the threats to their habitat, including hydrocarbon (seismic) exploration (potential oil spills and noise) and overfishing of their prey species.”

To watch a VIDEO of the encounter visit the source at Adventure Sports Network

Activists sound alarm over Russia’s whale trade

August 3, 2017

A young beluga whale looks down as it is winched in a net onto the deck of a rusty Russian ship moored at a far-eastern port.

“Don’t forget us, bitch!” shouts one of its captors onboard the ship as the animal is deposited next to three more belugas and rows of other sea mammals such as seals.

The grim footage — aired in a recent Russian documentary — shines a spotlight on a murky and poorly regulated trade in marine mammals that has made the country the biggest supplier of some species to aquariums across the globe.

Activists documented squalid conditions and dead beluga whales being hastily buried as traders exploited loopholes in legislation to turn a lucrative profit.

“We started making a film about aquariums, but I couldn’t imagine such a huge business behind them, a huge corrupt system,” said Gayane Petrosyan, who directed the film “Born Free” that premiered earlier this year.

While many countries around the world are phasing out the use dolphins for entertainment, China’s industry is expanding and Russian animals are its star performers.

“The animals are treated as a commodity,” Petrosyan said.

– Loopholes –

Officially Russia has exported 91 live marine mammals — including seals, whales and dolphins — since the beginning of 2016, 84 of which went to China, according to available customs figures.

Each year, the government permits traders to catch about 10 orcas and 150 beluga whales for zoos and oceanariums, said Dmitry Glazov, deputy chairman of Russia’s Marine Mammal Council of scientists.

Permits for orcas, which fetch at least a million dollars each, are especially in demand.

While these numbers may sound low, activists believe the true figure is higher as fishermen abuse quotas meant to cover animals captured for educational or scientific purposes to export them commercially.

“If you catch an orca for education and cultural purposes in Russia and then sell it to China for those purposes, that’s against the law,” said lawyer Maxim Krupsky, who helps scientists opposing the trade.

– Population fears –

While neither orcas or belugas are listed as globally endangered animals, Russian scientists say that the lack of oversight in the trade and recent research means they are left in the dark over the numbers remaining in their waters.

“For many marine mammal species, it’s not even clear how many animals there are, there have been no studies since the Soviet times,” academic Glazov said.

A rough headcount in 2010 suggested there are two separate populations of beluga whales in the Russian Far East, and it would be sustainable to only catch 15 annually from each group, he said.

In reality, hunters focus on one group in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan, grabbing as many as 80 animals in a single season and especially going after the juvenile females most important for the population’s reproduction.

And as the animals are caught for “education” rather than commercial purposes, the government is not even getting any money in taxes from their sales, Glazov added.

Glazov said that the controversy resulted in an unofficial halt on live catch in 2016, but this year the government has allowed it again.

– Orca shows –

Whale and dolphin species like belugas and orcas are highly intelligent mammals who travel large distances and have complex societies. Unlike other animals, they are believed to live shorter lives in captivity.

International controversies surrounding their wellbeing in captivity as well as several killings of trainers by orcas, also known as killer whales, have put public pressure on parks like SeaWorld in the US, which announced it would stop keeping them last year.

In China however, new parks are opening up. Nine Russian orcas were unveiled this year in Chimelong Ocean Kingdom park, and at least two more entertainment facilities are opening over the next few years that promise shows featuring orcas.

All orcas caught in Russia come from the less numerous mammal-eating killer whale variety, rather than the fish-eating one, said Erich Hoyt, a research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation and co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project.

Hoyt estimated the number of mammal-eating orcas as “probably in the low hundreds” in the Russian Far East.

“There is a risk that live catch will significantly erode the Russian orca populations,” he said.

Glazov agreed that the practice should be stopped for all marine mammals in Russia.

“Until we know their numbers, there should be a moratorium on catching them,” he said.

Source: sg.news.yahoo.com

Terrified fishermen scream as pod of killer whales rams into the side of their small boat

July 18, 2017

A group of fishermen were filmed screaming in fear as a pod of killer whales rammed into the side of their small boat in the sea.

In the footage, recorded by the men onboard the vessel, the huge mammals can be seen swimming to the surface of the water.

They then head towards the boat as it floats in the Pacific Ocean.

The pod rises and falls in the water as the men, who are speaking Russian, start laughing and joking about whether they should attempt to catch one of the orcas in the net.

But as the killer whales get much closer, with their huge fins breaking the surface, the men suddenly become quiet.

One of the animals starts pushing the boat with its nose, shocking the fishermen, who begin to shout.

For a few moments it seems as if one of the other orcas has joined in too.

Fortunately, the incident was over in seconds and after passing underneath the boat, the pod of whales swam away.

After the footage was posted online, one viewer suggested the killer whales were simply playing with the fishermen.

One man said: “Wonderful fishing day, wonderful catch, killer whales, nature, active recreation with family and friends.”

There are few recorded cases of killer whales threatening humans, but captive orcas have been known to kill.

The most infamous was Tilikum the killer whale who was involved in the death of three people.

On February 2, 1991, 21-year-old Keltie Byrne was drowned after falling into the killer whale pool, containing Tilikum, at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada.

Daniel Dukes, 27, was found dead over the whale’s back on July 6, 1999 after apparently sneaking into the enclosure at SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida, USA.

And on February 24, 2010, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau was killed while working as a SeaWorld trainer.

Source: Mirror.co.uk

For Sale: Wild Russian Killer Whales

March 21, 2017

The boat circled a pod of killer whales feeding peacefully on fish. The crew had already pursued several different whale groups over the past few days with no success. After 10 failed capture attempts, the hunters knew their targets weren’t easy prey. So this time, the crew was patient and kept circling to lull the animals into complacency.

When the whales seemed calm enough, the crew flung the encircling nets, and quickly realized how many animals they faced: about 20 whales, adults and calves, frantically swam around inside the enclosure. Within minutes, the animals discovered escape routes and rushed to break free.

“The adults moved toward the stern and began to escape over the net. They did it in an amazing way: a killer whale would come right up to the floats, and then roll over its back, upside down,” a crew member later recalled, in a written account of the capture. “At the same time, the young animals dashed to the ship’s bow and tried to force through [any gaps].”

The net emptied fast, but the hunters lucked out. One youngster’s pectoral fin got stuck between a float and the steel rope at the top of the net. The divers on deck, paid to jump into the water and help lift captured animals onto the boat, were scared by the killer whale’s might; they froze until other crew members reportedly forced them into action. When the nets lifted, another body appeared—a small one. Tangled deep down in the net, the calf had died. “Being busy with the first one, we didn’t notice the other one and it drowned,” the crew member said. They cut the net and dumped the body into the ocean.

A video of the ordeal shows another whale getting entangled in the net as it attempts an escape. As the whale splashes and struggles, ramming its head against the floats, one captor yells, “It’s tangled, it’s tangled! It will drown!” A second crew member calmly replies, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll get another one.”

This 2003 hunt for killer whales off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east, the first capture in Russian waters for commercial purposes, echoes earlier hunts oceans away. In the 1970s, aquariums—from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Orlando, Florida, to Mexico City—scrambled to net killer whales in European and North American waters. As star marine megafauna, killer whales lured in a paying audience who, at the time, thought little of how the animals lived or that performing for the crowd might not keep the animals free from boredom. Eventually, public sentiment shifted. First against hunting, then—helped along by American documentaries Keiko: The Untold Story in 2010 and Blackfish in 2013—against whales in confinement, period.

Whales remain in captivity in the West, but facilities have been closing over the past few years. In Russia, as well as China (which buys whales from Russia), more facilities have been opening. “The general public in China and Russia is a bit out of step with the Western sensibilities in terms of animals,” says marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC. “They are where the Western world was 40 to 50 years ago.”

Killer whales in the Sea of Okhotsk and surrounding waters off Kamchatka, are caught in a different zeitgeist than their cousins an ocean away, and it’s killing them.


In China, the marine theme park industry is surging. According to a 2015 report prepared by the China Cetacean Alliance, Ocean Theme Parks: A Look Inside China’s Growing Captive Cetacean Industry, China has 39 operational ocean theme parks, housing 491 cetaceans from 11 different species, and it’s building 14 more parks. “The Chinese don’t capture killer whales, but they are willing to pay a pretty penny for them,” says Erich Hoyt, codirector of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) and a research fellow with the United Kingdom’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The cost of a live killer whale is, at minimum, US $1-million, a price tag that gives Russian whalers more than enough incentive.

In 1999, Hoyt, who has researched whales and dolphins all over the world, started FEROP with two collaborators, codirector Alexander Burdin and Japanese researcher Hal Sato. It began as a pilot research project on the killer whales inhabiting the northwest Pacific Ocean, a group that wasn’t being studied at all. He brought Russian scientists onboard and trained them in photo identification and other techniques.

Monitoring captures of any kind is very difficult in Russia. The Kamchatka Peninsula, which occupies 370,000 square kilometers, is essentially a wild frontier. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Sea of Okhotsk to the west, and the Bering Sea to the northeast, the peninsula is reachable only by plane, boat, or helicopter. Kamchatka has historically been a few man’s land, rich with wildlife and fish, and where hunting and fishing have always been a part of life. Whale hunting is illegal in Russia today, except for members of the indigenous tribes that live along the coast of the Chukchi and Bering Seas. Government regulations, however, permit capturing whales for “scientific, cultural, and educational purposes,” within an allowable quota. According to FEROP, regulators often ignore the quotas recommended by the organization, advice that’s based on scientific facts established by marine mammalogists. In the past, when FEROP recommended a quota of zero, the regional fisheries managers at the Pacific Fisheries Research Center (TINRO-Center) and the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography—which view marine mammals, including whales, as a fishery resource—allowed around 10 captures.

Today, three captured killer whales perform in shows at the new Moscow aquarium, Moskvarium, which opened in 2015. Russian killer whales have also been sent to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, one of the world’s largest aquariums, in Zhuhai, in China’s Hunan Province: two in 2013, five in 2014, and two in 2015. The whales were finally shown to the public in February. Some of the whales remained unseen for two years before they were put on display for the public, making animal rights activists all over the world worry that some may have died, unable to adjust to captivity, Rose said. Luckily, all the animals were still alive. “Assuming, of course, that these nine orcas are the original nine, which can’t be confirmed,” Rose notes.

It will be hard for the general public to understand the killer whales’ true fate through the haze of entertainment without educational efforts in both countries. Westerners might be more informed of the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity, but that knowledge is fairly recent. Throughout most of history, the human interpretation (at least in the Western canon) of these creatures and their behaviors has been exceptionally flawed: killer whales have been cast as brutes, a distasteful animal in the realm of animal stories, more foe than friend, more bully than buddy. Education, and, ironically, captivity helped change perceptions . . . 

To continue reading this amazing article please visit the source at Hakai Magazine.com

Menopause Mystery: Why Do Female Killer Whales Experience The Change Of Life?

January 12, 2017

Menopause is a mystery to evolutionary biologists, but new insights could come from a long-term study of killer whales.

In these whales, the explanation may lie in a combination of conflict and cooperation between older and younger females, according to a report published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Killer whales are one of only three species known to have menopause — the others are pilot whales and humans. Researchers have long wondered why it was that these few species evolved to have females that spend so much of their lives unable to have babies.

Killer whales start reproducing around age 15, but stop having calves in their 30s or 40s, even though they can live for around a century.

A team led by behavioral ecologist Darren Croft of the University of Exeter decided to search for answers with the help of an unusual long-term study of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. There, since the 1970s, researchers have carefully collected information on the births and deaths of individual whales that live in family groups.

Contained within the data is an intriguing clue about why female whales may stop reproducing later in life.

When older females reproduce at the same time as their daughters, who live alongside them, the calves of the older mothers are nearly twice as likely to die in the first 15 years of life. But when older mothers had calves in the absence of a reproducing daughter, their calves did just fine.

“It’s not that older mothers are bad mothers, that they’re not able to raise their calves as younger mothers,” says Croft. “It’s that when they enter into this competition with their daughters, they lose out and their calves are more likely to die.”

The competition may center on access to food, says Croft, because there’s good reason to believe older females feel more pressure to share their precious fish with the others around them.

That’s because, in killer whales, females mate with males from other groups but then rejoin their families. That means when a new calf is born, its father is not around, and females start their lives in a situation where their relatedness to the group is rather low.

As a female grows older and starts having calves that stay with her, however, she develops more kinship ties to those around her. “It may be that older females are more likely to share, and younger females are less likely to share food,” says Croft. That would mean younger females would have more resources to lavish on their own calves.

It’s clear that in these whales, older females play an important role in the survival of not just their own calves, but all of the family members they live with. “If an old female dies, her son’s risk of dying in the year following her death is over eight times higher than if his mother was still alive,” says Croft, “and these are adult sons, these are not juveniles, these are 30-year-old, fully grown males.”

The idea that older females safeguard and enhance their genetic legacy by protecting and providing for their children and grandchildren has been an influential explanation for why menopause evolved. It’s known as the Grandmother hypothesis, and was developed by anthropologists who studied hunter-gatherer cultures.

But Croft thinks that alone isn’t enough to account for menopause, because other long-lived, social species, like elephants, have older females that help their group but continue to bear young until the end of life. “Just the fact that these old females can store information and share that with the group and increase their survival doesn’t explain why they stop reproducing,” says Croft.

Proponents of the Grandmother hypothesis, however, may not be so convinced that intrafamilial conflict plays an important role.

Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, at the University of Utah, says the killer whales are fascinating, but that they’re hard to study. “They’re doing all kinds of stuff where you can’t see it, and even to get demographic data is just so tricky, because they’re all underwater and they’re long-lived,” she says.

She points to one recent study on food-sharing in killer whales that found older females share fish with their older adult sons, perhaps to maximize the males’ ability to sire more babies.

If that’s the case, she says, “it’s not the older females and younger females in competition, it’s the older females contributing to the enormous success of their sons, and then those baby whales are all born somewhere else. They’re not competing, because their moms are elsewhere.”

Source: npr.org