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Are Killer Whales Really Whales?

Also known as orcas, killer whales are not really whales at all. Killer whales are members of the dolphin family known as Cetacea. Considered the largest of all dolphins, killer whales are known to feed many types of marine life, including sea lions, seals and whales. Seabirds, squid and various types of fish also are parts of the orca’s diet. The teeth of the killer whale are 4 inches (10 cm) long and sharp enough to grab onto prey so that the orca can drag it into deeper water.

More facts about killer whales:

  • Killer whales are capable of remaining under water for only a certain amount of time, then must surface to breathe.

  • When it comes to the daily diet, the average killer whale will consume enough prey to equal about 5 percent of its body weight.

  • Killer whales live in groups that are known as pods. A pod typically includes six to 40 whales.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are killer whales actually considered whales?

No, killer whales, or orcas, are not true whales. They belong to the oceanic dolphin family (Delphinidae) and are the largest members of this family. Despite their common name, their characteristics and behavior align more closely with dolphins than with whales.

Why are killer whales called 'whales' if they are dolphins?

The name 'killer whale' is believed to be a mistranslation of the Spanish name 'asesina ballenas,' which means 'whale killer,' as they were observed preying on larger whale species. Over time, the name was flipped to 'killer whale,' although they are indeed part of the dolphin family.

How can you distinguish a killer whale from other whale species?

Killer whales have a distinctive black and white coloration, with a robust body and a tall dorsal fin that can reach up to 6 feet in males. They are more agile and have complex social structures, which are traits more commonly associated with dolphins than with baleen or toothed whales.

What is the size comparison between killer whales and other whales?

Killer whales can grow up to 32 feet in length and weigh up to 6 tons, making them the largest dolphins. However, they are smaller than many whale species. For example, the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, can reach lengths of up to 100 feet and weigh as much as 200 tons.

Do killer whales have the same diet as other whales?

Killer whales have a diverse diet that can include fish, seals, and even other whales, showcasing their position as apex predators. This contrasts with many large baleen whales that filter-feed on small organisms like krill. The orca's varied diet is more similar to other dolphins than to filter-feeding whales.

How do the social structures of killer whales compare to those of true whales?

Killer whales are known for their complex social structures, living in matrilineal family groups called pods. These tight-knit groups exhibit sophisticated communication and cooperative hunting strategies. While some whale species also form social groups, the social bonds and behaviors of orcas are more intricate and resemble those found in dolphin societies.

Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGEEK, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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