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Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, are large marine mammals that belong to the suborder Odontoceti, or toothed whales. They are one of the most recognized animals in the world because of their large size and distinct black-and-white pattern.
See the fact file below for more information on Killer Whales, or you can download our 23-page Killer Whale worksheet pack to utilize within the classroom or home environment.
Key Facts & Information
Key Facts & Information of Orcas/Killer Whales
- Scientific Name: Orcinus orca
- Common Name: Orca, Killer Whale, Blackfish, and Wolves of the Sea
- Type: Mammal
- Diet: Carnivores
- Group Name: Pod
- Average Lifespan in the Wild: 50 to 80 years
- Average Size: 23 to 33 feet (7 – 10 m)
- Average Weight: Up to 6 tons
Introducing Orcas/Killer Whales
- Orcas/Killer Whales are the largest member of the dolphin family, recognized by their distinct black-and-white coloration, large dorsal fin, and a sleek, streamlined body. Orcas are described as playful, friendly, and intelligent, with the ability to solve problems. Orcas were given the name ‘killer whale’ by ancient sailors who observed groups of them hunting and eating large whale species, and so historically, they were feared as dangerous, savage predators. Orcas are not whales and only hunt marine life for food, with no fatal attack on humans ever being documented. Orcas are also known as blackfish and wolves of the sea.
Habitat and Diet
- Orcas/killer whales live in oceans and seas around the world and easily adapt to warm and cold climates. They can be found near the equator as well as in the polar regions.
- They have been documented traveling long distances, as far as 2 000 kilometers. They do, however, prefer to stay near the coastline.
- Orcas/killer whales are carnivores. They prey on a variety of marine animals like fish, squid, octopus, sea lions, seals, penguins, dolphins, whales, and even sharks.
- Orcas/killer whales hunt in pods, usually composed of 30 to 40 individuals.
- Resident pods mainly consume a fish and squid diet.
- Transient pods usually prey on marine mammals.
- Orcas/killer whales have very strong teeth and jaws that exert a powerful grip. The upper teeth fall into the gaps between the lower teeth when the mouth is closed. The middle and back teeth hold prey in place.
- Orcas/killer whales prey on about 30 species of fish and will easily eat 500 lb (227 kg) of fish each day.
Anatomy of Orcas/Killer Whales
- Males are typically 20 – 26 ft (6 – 8 m) in length and weigh more than 6 tonnes.
- Females are smaller, ranging from 16 – 23 ft (5 – 7 m) and weighing about 4 tonnes.
- At birth, calves are about 7.9 ft (2.4 m) in length and weigh about 400 lb (180 kg)
- Males’ fins are about twice the size of females, and males and females also have different patterns of black and white skin in their genital areas.
- Orcas/killer whales have a cylindrical body shape, which tapers on both ends.
- They have distinctive pigmentation with sharply contrasted black-and-white bodies. They are mostly black on the upper side and white on the underside. However, some Antarctic orcas are yellow and brown due to diatoms (a type of algae) in the water they inhabit.
- Behind their dorsal fin is a blotch of gray called a saddle.
- Orcas/killer whales have good eyesight, excellent hearing, and a good sense of touch.
- Males have the largest dorsal fin of all marine mammals. It can grow up to 6 feet long, while females have shorter and curved dorsal fins.
- Between the dorsal fin and the flukes is the peduncle, a large muscular area. Both the dorsal fin and flukes are made of dense connective tissue.
- Orcas/killer whales have paddle-shaped pectoral fins used for steering and stopping, along with the fluke.
- They have excellent eyesight both in and out of the water. They also have a well-developed sense of hearing and receiving sound through receptors in their jawbones.
- They breathe using a blowhole that is controlled by a muscular flap.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
- Females begin to mature at the age of 10 and reach peak fertility around 20 years of age.
- Males mature sexually at around the age of 15 but do not usually reproduce until they reach 21 years of age, when they will mate with females from other pods, which prevents inbreeding.
- The gestation period of orcas is between 15 to 18 months, and a single baby orca or calf is born, usually tail first.
- Sadly calf mortality is extremely high, with 40 – 50% of calves dying within the first six months.
- Weaning begins at about 12 months of age when calves begin to hunt with pod members, and weaning is complete by two years of age.
- Female orcas/killer whales live longer than males. The average lifespan in the wild is 30 to 80 years. In captivity, it is often less than 20 years.
Behavioral Traits and Habits
- These marine mammals live in extremely close family groups. They migrate and hunt in pods, which are composed of different generations. In human terms, a pod will consist of children, their parents, grandparents, and friends.
- When an orca/killer whale makes a large kill, the rest of the group shares it. Given their close social structure and intelligence, orcas are one of the most successful hunters in the animal kingdom.
- Like elephants and humans, orcas/killer whales are very protective of their young.
- Smart and social, these creatures make a wide variety of communicative sounds. Each pod has distinctive noises that its members can recognize, even at a great distance.
- They communicate through clicks and whistles, and they make communicative gestures like jumping out of the water, charging each other, and light touching to relay information.
- Orcas/killer whales are known for their echolocation system, wherein sound waves travel underwater until they hit any object and bounce back.
- According to the IUCN, the exact population of orcas is unknown. Among the threats to orcas are the following:
- Water contaminants such as oil and chemicals.
- Exploitation and killing by humans.
- Disturbance due to whale-watching tourism.
- Food shortages due to overfishing.
- The current population is estimated to be around 50,000 globally.
- At least 172 orcas have been recorded as dying in captivity.
- SeaWorld, in the United States, currently has 18 orcas in its three parks.
In Popular Culture
- In 1993, the film Free Willy depicted the friendship between a young boy named Jesse and an orca/killer whale trapped by a group of whalers and sold to an aquarium. Jesse battles against the whalers and amusement park to free Willy and reunite him with his family.
- The movie inspired the real-life release of Keiko, the whale who played Willy.
- Orcas/killer whales are large, social, and highly intelligent animals. When kept in captivity, they can develop dysfunctional behavior, which can be dangerous to their trainers.
Killer Whale Worksheets
This is a fantastic bundle that includes everything you need to know about killer whales across 23 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Killer Whale worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about orcas, commonly known as killer whales, which are large marine mammals that belong to the suborder Odontoceti, or toothed whales. They are one of the most recognized animals in the world because of their large size and distinct black-and-white pattern.
Complete List Of Included Worksheets
- Killer Whale Facts
- Info Cards
- Orca Anatomy
- True or False
- Orca Island
- The Killer Whale
- The Coolest Whales
- Whale Search
- The Killers
- Meet Mr. Iceberg
- Free Willy
Frequently Asked Questions
Do orcas eat humans?
Despite their reputation as fearsome hunters, orcas/killer whales are not killers, nor are they dangerous to humans. There is no record of an orca/killer whale ever having killed a human, but they have been known to get cross with trainers when held in captivity. Occasionally in the wild, an orca/killer whale may mistake a human for some marine life, such as a seal, but humans are not part of their diet.
What preys on and eats orcas?
Orcas are apex predators, meaning they are at the top of the food chain and therefore have no predators. Orcas/killer whales are one of the ocean’s largest and most powerful animals, and no predator is brave enough to attack them.
Are orcas friendly?
Orcas are social and friendly creatures. They are considered highly intelligent and capable of thoughts and emotions, including showing empathy towards each other and towards humans.
Who is faster, a great white or an orca?
Orcas are the second fastest marine mammal and can reach speeds of 34.8 mph (56 km/h). Great White Sharks only go about 14 mph (24km/h), so the orca/killer whales win this race.
Are orcas/killer whales a type of dolphin?
Taxonomy classifies orcas/killer whales as part of the marine dolphin family Delphinidae. However, orcas/killer whales are far bigger than their other relatives. Dolphins reach about 9 ft (2.7 m) in length, whereas orcas reach lengths of 26 ft (8 m).
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Use With Any Curriculum
These worksheets have been specifically designed for use with any international curriculum. You can use these worksheets as-is, or edit them using Google Slides to make them more specific to your own student ability levels and curriculum standards.