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Bob Pitman talk on Antarctic orcas Nov. 18, 2009

Notes from a talk by Bob Pitman on Antarctic orcas, Nov. 18, 2009 – hosted by ACS Puget Sound

The classroom at the Phinney Neighborhood Center in Seattle was filled wall to wall with people eager to hear about the four (3 for sure, 1 probable) types of orcas he’s found that stalk and forage in and around the ice floes and pack ice (there’s a difference) in Antarctica. I don’t think anyone was disappointed. The entire hour-long presentation was non-stop with amazing stories and discoveries, vivid observations and some incredible images of divergent cultures of orcas at work and play.

It was like watching a lecture by a 19th century anthropologist just back from a scientific expedition deep in the Amazon jungle, enthralling the audience with incredible tales of outlandish natives and their curious customs. That’s how exotic these A, B, C and, possibly, D orca types are, and how startling are the discoveries over the past several years by Pitman, his colleague John Durban and their team in the bright, cold Antarctic summer.

Caveat: These notes are by no means comprehensive, and I invite anyone else who was there or has anything to add, to do so.

Beginning in 2000 Pitman has conducted field studies on Antarctic orcas, and has consistently proposed multiple species, or at least “ecotypes” occuring sympatrically (found in the same habitat). Some of his published works include:

LeDuc, Richard G., Kelly M. Robertson, and Robert L. Pitman (2008). Mitochondrial sequence divergence among Antarctic killer whale ecotypes is consistent with multiple species Biol. Lett. (2008) 4, 426–429.

Pitman, Robert L., Wayne L. Perryman, Don Leroi, and Erik Eilers (2007) A dwarf form of killer whale in Antarctica Journal of Mammalogy, 88(1):43–48

Pitman, Robert L. Good whale hunting: two tantalizing Russian reports take the author on a quest to the Antarctic, in search of two previously unrecognized kinds of killer whale Natural History, December 2003.

To set the stage for this travelogue to Antarctica, Pitman first described the different ecotypes (orcatypes?) documented in the Pacific NW to establish his frame of reference, because our familiar residents, transients and offshores were the first to be researched in the mid-1970s and remain the best known orcas in the world. He said mammal-eating transients are probably a different species than fish-eating residents and that we should look for a paper he will co-author to describe the transient species soon. He also tantalizingly mentioned that there may be up to five species of orcas worldwide.

In Mitochondrial sequence divergence among Antarctic killer whale ecotypes is consistent with multiple species, Pitman writes:
“Type A has the typical black and white coloration; it inhabits ice-free waters and appears to prey mainly on cetaceans, particularly Antarctic minke whales. Type B is grey, black and white, with a larger eyepatch and a distinct dorsal cape; it forages in pack ice and feeds on pinnipeds. Type C is similar to type B in appearance but with a narrow, oblique eyepatch; it is most frequently encountered in dense pack ice where it specializes on fishes.”

That dorsal cape on Types B and C would be the envy of any hot rod pin-striper, sweeping along the upper torso starting in front of the blowhole and arcing into the saddle patch (see Uko Gorter’s detailed illustrations in the same paper). Besides this striking coloration in Types B and C, the body size differences are substantial: Type C males average only 18.3 feet, with the largest male at 20 feet. Type A males average nearly 24 feet, and the largest was 29.5 feet, 50% larger than Type C. Type B is smaller than Type A but larger than Type C.

But it’s the degree of dietary specialization by each type that is most astounding. Type C, for instance, feeds almost exclusively on toothfish, which can exceed 440 pounds, and reach a length up to 7.5 feet, though most are less than half that size. Unfortunately legal and illegal fisheries target toothfish, reducing their numbers each year, and according to The Antarctica Project, “It is common practice in the illegal fishery to dynamite Sperm and Killer whales when they are discovered in the area where the fishing takes place.”

The incredible forethought and teamwork shown by Type B as they take down Weddell seals was the subject of most of the presentation. They feast almost exclusively on Weddell seals, while completely ignoring leopard seals and crabeater seals, both very abundant in the same waters.
Pitman recounted some amazing stories of careful planning and execution as Type B orcas captured, drowned and devoured the seals. Numerous photos and descriptions showed Type B orcas seeking Weddell seals by spyhopping repeatedly en masse around the ice, then rushing at the floes abreast to toss a wave over the flat ice, either washing the seal off the ice or breaking up the ice until not enough is left to keep the seal safe from the orcas’ toothy grasp. The middle of the wave often peaked in a frothy breaker aimed directly at the seal. On several occasions crabeater seals were washed off ice floes, then left alone when the mistaken identity was realized. In at least one instance, the whales neatly skinned a seal with incisions along the neck and midsection, then the skin was pulled off the carcass by at least two orcas. Pitman also documented Type B orcas taking an elephant seal and a minke, but never a leopard seal or crabeater seal.

The audience was then treated to lengthy discussion and photos of yet another type, even more bizarre than the others, which Pitman calls “Type D,” which have large bodies, tiny, slanted eyepatches and bulbous heads, and are the least documented. Pitman was tentative about naming them as another type, but he has amassed a collection of photos and field reports about them in just the past few years. Satellite tags have recorded Type D traveling 150 nautical miles per day for ten days. It’s usually said that orcas can travel up to 100 miles a day, but apparently that will now have to be revised upward. In the Q&A, Pitman clarified that no fighting was seen among any of the orca types; and that they always share food.

Last season and this season’s fieldwork is conducted partly in cooperation with a BBC crew filming a special to be called: “Frozen Planet” which will effectively announce these incredible orca types to the wider public. I know I’ll be watching for it.

I went away curious about the taxonomic thicket that might ensue when transient orcas are proposed as a separate species. I wonder how far that might go, since theoretically every genetically distinct orca community could then be considered a separate species. Is it possible that the paradigm and taxonomy from biology are insufficient to describe the “ecotypes” that are found around the world? If Rendell and Whitehead are right in Culture in Whales and Dolphins, orcas have independently evolved cultural capabilities without parallel except in humans. Would designating mammal-eaters and fish-eaters as separate species be analogous to describing isolated human societies as separate species? In some cases interbreeding may have become impossible, but for most combinations of sympatric communities it’s possible, but virtually never done.

In discussions of orcas, and possibly sperm whales, humpbacks, pilot whales, and others, might cetology find it useful to borrow some of the concepts and terminology from anthropology and sociology? I wonder if the various orca types and communities could be described as “cultures” rather than “ecotypes” for instance? Just wonderin.’

Orcinus orca: our neighbors with fins

50artsy_fin.jpgThe context:

The best kept secret in all civilizations is that we are animals! We are medium-sized mammals, who just happen to have evolved the ability and the need to construct vast symbolic systems to define ourselves, and now we can’t see our way out of our own systems, so we fight each other to the death to defend them. Hoisted on our own petards! Our daily lives are dominated by humans acting badly toward one another while ignoring and trampling the natural wonders that are the real foundations of our own lives.

But there is at least one other species that has also evolved the capacity to construct symbolic systems of self-definition and live according to those rules within distinct cultures sustainably for thousands of generations: Orcinus orca. We can learn much from the orca. If you are skeptical, you should be. That’s the scientific method, along with reliance on the accumulated evidence and the published work of other scientists.


The astounding natural history of Orcinus orca. First, a bit of history to set up the seismic shift in our perception of the orca.

When NOAA Fisheries listed the Southern Resident orca community, native to Washington State and British Columbia waters, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) earlier this year, a new definition of the orca emerged from the process that officially revised our basic understanding of the species.

Before NOAA could list J, K and L pods as endangered, they first had to establish that this community of orcas is a “distinct population segment” (DPS), as defined by the ESA. In 1978, in response to the need to protect particular runs (not just species) of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the ESA was amended so they could list a subspecies, and if necessary, a loosely defined “distinct population segment.” Congress instructed the Secretary to exercise this authority “…sparingly and only when the biological evidence indicates that such action is warranted.”

To be considered a distinct population segment, a population must be reproductively isolated from other conspecific (same species) populations, and it must be important for the evolutionary legacy of the species. Until the Southern resident orcas were listed, only geographic separation, at least during breeding, could cause a population to be reproductively isolated from other populations of the same species. For example, Sacramento River Spring run Chinook salmon are geographically, and therefore reproductively, separated from Upper Columbia River Spring run Chinook, and so are listed separately. (Southern Resident orcas have historically depended on both Chinook runs to survive, and both are endangered.)

Trouble is, Southern Resident orcas cross paths every day with Transient orcas, and in fact are in no way separated from Northern resident orcas, or Offshore orcas for that matter. The various populations could easily interbreed, but they don’t. The field of biology doesn’t account for this kind of willful reproductive separation. It tells us something is at work here determining behavior that has never before been found in any animal other than humans. That factor is culture.

NOAA has never before had to deal with an animal that demonstrated culture, so in June, 2002, NOAA partially dodged the issue by designating the Residents as “depleted” under the less stringent Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), thus avoiding the troublesome ESA language. NOAA stated that although the Southern Residents “compose a distinct population,” and “face a relatively high risk of extinction,” they were not significant to the species worldwide. If they went extinct, NOAA said, another orca community could simply move in and occupy their habitat. The MMPA listing triggered a lawsuit in which the judge was presented with a wealth of evidence that Southern residents are a unique and irreplaceable cultural community, which prompted the judge to instruct NOAA to review it all and reconsider their decision not to list the orcas under the ESA. NOAA did reconsider, and concluded that the Southern residents are indeed a cultural community, and needed protection under the ESA. Here’s the evidence, and what it all adds up to.

The strongest evidence for culture lies in the vocal dialects of resident pods; each pod has a distinctive set of 7-17 `discrete’ calls (Ford 1991a; Strager 1995). These dialects are maintained despite extensive associations between pods. Some pods share up to 10 calls and pods which share calls can be grouped together in acoustic ‘clans,’ suggesting another level of population structure. Ford found four distinct clans within two resident communities (Northern and Southern), and suggested that these call variations are a result of dialects being passed down through vocal learning, and being modified over time. Thus, given the lack of dispersal, acoustic clans may reflect common matrilineal ancestry, and the number of calls any two pods share may reflect their relatedness. In addition to these pod-specific calls, orcas make a wide variety of “variable” calls, especially during intense socializing, that defy description. No similarities have been found in the calls made by different communities.

Other evidence for culture includes:

  • Unlike any other mammal known, both male and female offspring remain with their mother and her family their entire lives. There is no dispersal.
  • Diet is strictly limited. Though they are the top marine predator, Southern Residents eat only fish.
  • Reproduction is strictly limited. Mating occurs only within the community, and between, but not within, pods.
  • Orcas live in family groups believed to be led by elder matriarchs. Two or more matrilines may form a pod.
  • Female orcas may live more than four decades after birthing their last calf at about age 40-45. Only orcas and humans exhibit such a long post-reproductive lifespan.
  • A similar pattern of distinct and separate cultural orca communities has been found worldwide, demonstrating unique vocalizations, diets, social systems and habitat usage.

A landmark paper published in 2001 summed it all up thusly: “The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties” (Rendell and Whitehead, 2001).

All of the above leaves little doubt that for Southern Resident orcas, cultural traditions transcend instinct, genetics, environment, or individual learning, and to some extent actually determine evolutionary development. In years to come scientists may be describing not just physical attributes and interesting behaviors in our friendly neighborhood orcas, but their cultural identities as well.

Now here’s the amazing part: Nobody seems to care. At least nobody seems to be able to think about the perspective that we have indigenous cultures of orcas inhabiting the waters just below the waves out our windows. I’ve been amplifying and broadcasting the progress of scientific thought on orca cultures since 2001 when Rendell and Whitehead published “Culture in Whales and Dolphins.” I’ve done a poster display at one conference, an oral presentation at another, I’ve written op-eds using the culture perspective to understand A73/Springer and L98/Luna, plus news releases on our website and numerous powerpoint presentations, but so far I haven’t seen a glimmer of curiosity or interest in developing the view that orcas are a culture unto themselves on a par with human native cultures. The fact of orca culture is showing up in all sorts of media, from Nature magazine to today’s Sunday Seattle Times, but where are the scientists and thinkers? I would think there would be some consideration of where this realization of orca cultures, now enshrined in Federal law and mass media, is taking us. What are the theoretical supports from the social sciences, and what are the implications for human activities and attitudes toward orcas? Anybody game?

Howard Garrett
Orca Network
Greenbank, WA