Last night, huddled around a warm fire on a cold southern California night, we decided that today we were going to feature an animal. Why you might ask? Why not. What better animal for us to the feature than the mighty, majestic, and mysterious…orca whale.
Also known as the killer whale, orcas are large marine mammals reaching up to 32 feet long and weighing over 6 tons. They are toothed whales, very closely related to dolphins, sperm whales, belugas, and oceanic unicorns (narwhals). Orcas generally live between 50 and 90 years.
So, why are we telling you this?
We could go on deep into the night telling you cool facts about orca whales, but there’s a story here that you might not be so familiar with, and it’s focused on grandmothers. You read that correctly. Orca grandmothers.
Killer whales are very social animals, living in groups of up to 40 individuals. The societies are matriarchal in nature, meaning the females run the show. Orca females stop reproducing around 40 years of age and can live to 90, whereas the males generally only live to 50.
The orca is one of only two species of mammals, besides humans, known to go through menopause. Biologists have long wondered what drove orcas to evolve this way. The reason has remained a mystery, but new research suggests an answer: Grandmothers boost the survival of their grandcalves.
After going through menopause, grandmother orcas and mothers stop competing for scarce resources needed to feed newborn whales. The matriarchal leaders also carry with them vital knowledge about food resources that are necessary for the pods survival. The grandmothers know where to find the food and make sure the whole family eats enough to survive.
Okay, this sounds eerily familiar. Grandmothers making sure you eat enough food? Having vital knowledge about the best sources of food? I feel like my Vovo is nodding her head with a sly smile right now.
This phenomenon in humans has been widely accepted and even has a name, the grandmother effect. We’ve known for a long time that human grandmothers boost the survival rates of their grandchildren by supplementing food, care, and knowledge. The fact that we have recognized this in orcas, a species we evolutionarily diverged from millions of years ago, is groundbreaking.
So, if you have the opportunity to see your grandmother over the holidays, give her a big hug, listen to her advice, and if she insists you eat that extra helping of lasagna, don’t ask questions. Grandmothers everywhere know best.