Killer whales

The Noble Savages of the Sea

The focus of my interest in killer whales is on their intelligence and how this compares to other cetaceans. If the EQ hypothesis holds true, then killer whale intelligence should rank about half way down within this group. On the other hand, if brain size is the greater determinant of cetacean intellect, they should rank second or third.

Killer whales have brains that are almost as large as those of sperm whales. The only formal test of their intelligence so far performed has been the mirror test, which all subjects passed fairly rapidly. This contrasts with chimpanzees, for whom only 70% ever pass, and most of those only after extensive exposure. I have a liking for these whales, as do many other humans, but let me first note this…

Since ancient times, we have observed these animals to be aggressive to every large brained mammal associated with the sea, such that different human cultures have independently named them ‘killer whales’. This aspect of their nature is plain in the first recorded description of their species by Pliny the Elder.

“Orcas (the appearance of which no image can express, other than an enormous mass of savage flesh with teeth) are the enemy of [other whales]… they charge and pierce them like warships ramming.”

This has been a little unfair as that aspect of their behaviour really only applies to some of its subgroups, such as the ‘transient’ subspecies of the North Pacific. I suspect that, in the days before commercial whaling began to deplete their prey, these were the most common types. Nevertheless, there is one conspicuous exception to the aggression of transients against other mammals in the sea: humans. This has endeared then to many of us.

I will let the below video attest to their high level of intelligence. Note that, unlike many other videos purporting to show the intelligence of killer whales, this analysis is not spoiled by marine biologists that start out with that belief, and are simply trying to justify it.

Note the following points from the above case study.

  1. How strong the evidence is that they enrolled us in their scheme and maintained it, not the other way around.
  2. Leadership in this association came from the whales not the humans.
  3. How each killer whale in the hybrid team seemed to have its own specialist skill, such as Hooky preventing humans from drowning and Old Tom liaising with us.
  4. Killer whale pods are always lead by females, not males. Tom’s role was so exclusive, and his relationship with the humans was so deep, that the whalers were all convinced otherwise.

Often, it is difficult to determine if a seemingly intelligent behaviour is just some elaborate expression of instinct. In this case, however, it’s very hard to see what evolutionary history could have preadapted killer whales to abruptly begin such a sophisticated partnership with a terrestrial species – other than high social intelligence in general. Furthermore, we humans are a notably intelligent species, with very complex social rules, yet, here, a pod of killer whales seamlessly integrated, with a working group of us. The balance of evidence indicates that they dominated the partnership, suggesting that this pod’s level of ‘social intelligence’ was likely to be higher than the group of humans they worked with. The actions of this pod are very hard to explain if we assume that this particular facet of their intelligence is far below the human level.


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